Thursday, 10 September 2015

Mountain bike tour of Mont Blanc

Back in September 2013 I spent a fantastic weekend riding the tour of Mont Blanc. I made a video of it at the time ( but didn't get round to documenting it on here so thought I should put my thoughts and details of the route down before I forgot them.

This is a really special route. It visits three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) as well as circumnavigating the highest mountain in western Europe. It crosses remote alpages and passes of up to 2,500m. A bike tour should not be undertaken lightly as riding it is both physically strenuous and technically difficult. I would not recommend attempting the route in July or August as the number of walkers on the route can be enormous. June is normally ok for an attempt on the route, however there may be large snow patches to cross, which can be dangerous - I have experienced sliding out of control down one of these with a bike and it's pretty scary! September is probably the best month for it, but a dry October or even November could be good if the snows have yet to arrive.

Being lucky enough to be living and working in Chamonix means I had the opportunity to do this kind of thing on a weekend when other folks would have to plan a whole holiday around it.

I left work in Chamonix at 5 on a Friday afternoon and pedalled like crazy to get to the Prarion cable car in Les Houches before it closed at 5.30. Fortunately I made it in time and 7 minutes later had gone from 1,000m above sea level to around 1,800m. This was the only lift I took on the tour and it didn't feel like cheating as I've pushed up the slope beneath the lift to get up here before and don't feel there is anything to be gained from it. I also had an annual lift pass so the lift was free!
The view from the top of the Prarion lift above Les Houches
The first part of the descent is a lovely singletrack through the pine trees and across the alpine meadows. Lower down the trail turns to 4x4 track before dropping you into Bionnassay. From here I followed the road to the Pont des Places where the track deteriorated into a muddy logging track. A short distance along this I came across the loggers who were scratching their heads over an upturned logging vehicle with its wheels in the air. Not a good one to have to deal with or explain to the boss at 7pm on a Friday!

These guys were having a significantly worse Friday evening than me!

I trundled on to le Champel and then on to the main road to les Contamines before getting onto the bike track that took me all the way to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here there was a steep climb which involved some pushing, even on a bike with plenty of gears. This led over the ancient Pont Romain and the torrent in its carved out gorge and then past the Nant Borrant refuge where some hikers were enjoying an evening beer. After crossing some meadows I reached la Balme where there is a designated bivouac area. The rules state that it's ok to stay here from dusk until dawn but not to camp for more than one night. This suited me perfectly and there was no one else around.
A cup of tea before bedtime
I brewed some tea and then my pasta dinner followed by more tea. As I drank my final cup of tea before bedtime I noticed that there was a fox stalking me - when I turned my headtorch towards it the fox ducked behind a boulder. It tried several different angles of attack before giving up.

The next morning I woke early and noted a little ice on my bivvy bag as I put the kettle on. This was a reminder that even in September frosts are common at 1,700m. I hadn't been cold in the night though as I was wearing thermals and wrapped in a decent down sleeping bag.

I was on the trail early, mostly pushing and doing a little carrying to reach my first target of the Col du Bonhomme. From here I had imagined that climb to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme might be mostly rideable as it was only sloping gently upwards. This didn't turn out to be the case as it is strewn with boulders and the path is somewhat indistinct in places.
Col du Bonhomme first thing in the morning
The descent from the Croix du Bonhomme was excellent however. There were a couple of tiny snow patches to cross, but mostly the trail was in fine dry condition. I passed some walkers with their luggage on the back of mules here - 19th century style!

The descent brought me to les Chapieux and a road climb to the Mottets refuge where the ascent of the Col de la Seigne began in earnest. The first part of this climb was rideable (just) with an ok surface and steep gradient. Once my legs were cooked I was happy enough to push most of the rest of the climb.
Col de la Seigne
The descent from here was superb again with a fairly mellow start followed by more loose rock further down. The descent drops you into Val Veny - surely one of the most beautiful valleys in the alps. The incredible peak of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey sticks out from the south ridge of Mont Blanc and the Miage glacier flows down into the valley.

Looking down into Val Veny
Soon it was time to start climbing again. While it would be easy to continue down the valley to Courmayeur from here I had read that the trails leading through the col Chécrouit were worth the extra climb. This also meant I would be sticking to the TMB walking route. The climb went on longer than I had expected, and was mostly too steep to ride. Being the third major climb of the day my legs were not too keen on so much hard work.
Val Veny
I reached the top very sweaty and got stuck in to the singletrack descent. This was fun and rewarding until I passed the Maison Vielle refuge which is in the heart of the Courmayeur ski area. From here there was a little more singletrack, then I found myself on a 4x4 track which is a piste in the winter. I turned off this down a steppy path which was not ideal for riding. I was a little disappointed with this part of the descent as I didn't feel I had got value for the large amount of height lost. Maybe I didn't find the best way down.

I grabbed a sandwich, some crisps and cake in Courmayeur and then continued up the road into Val Ferret. The walking TMB route goes over the hill from Courmayeur via the Bertone refuge, but from reading about other mountain bike attempts it seemed that this was not a popular biking route, so I had decided to skip this extra climb and follow the road.

As the day was starting to cool with evening approaching there was a strong catabatic wind blowing down the valley, so I was riding up the road into a headwind. Not the best finish to a great day on the bike, but by grinding on into it I managed to get to the perfect spot to attack the Grand Col Ferret first thing in the morning. I stopped just beyond the road end and set my bivvy up amongst some trees near the river. After cooking my dinner I went for a look at the river which had a picturesque foot bridge.
Almost bedtime on the second night
The next morning began with a ride up the well made 4x4 track to the shuttered-up Elena refuge. From here the path was mostly too steep to ride until the last few hundred metres to reach the Grand Col Ferret. There was some frost remaining up here where the sun had not yet hit the slopes, but the day was already warming up quickly.
Halfway up the very long climb of the Grand Col Ferret
The descent from this col must be one of the best anywhere. It's not particularly technical for most of the descent, but has some scary exposure, flowing singletrack and astounding views. It goes on almost for ever!

From the small town of Issert the climbing begins again, this time up to Champex Lac which is a lovely little town on the edge of  a pretty lake. The trail climbs through the trees passing mushrooms carved out of the tree stumps. Some is rideable, a lot of it is too steep and rooty.

After Champex Lac there is a short, technical rooty descent before the climb to Bovine commences. This is a beast of a climb with very steep sections which were actually difficult to push up without sliding back on the loose surface. The climb finally relents and brings you out to the pasture of Bovine. The farm and buvette were all shuttered up and the cows had made their biannual transhumance to the winter pastures. I stopped for a cereal bar and contemplated the view from this lovely mountainside down to the smoggy industrial Rhone valley.
The alpage of Bovine
A few more minutes of uphill brought me to the high point and the start of a brilliant swoopy, rooty, fun filled trail which took me all the way down to the Col de la Forclaz. This is a trail I am keen to ride again, but the only way to do that is an unsatisfying out-and-back from the Col de la Forclaz or to do the horrible push from Champex. Maybe I'll get round to it somehow.

To descend to Trient I couldn't see any permitted mountain bike route, so to avoid the very busy road I slowly and carefully followed the water-race which leads towards the Glacier du Trient (signed as being forbidden for bikes). From here I took the switch-backs which cross the road and eventually lead to Trient.

The TMB route from here back to Chamonix climbs up to the Col de Balme, then down to Tré le Champ before making its final climb to the Lac Blanc and along the Aiguilles Rouges. The climb from Tré le Champ involves ladders, so I had ruled this out immediately. The Col de Balme is accessible by chairlift from the other side, so I had no desire to push my laden bike up it from this side just for the sake of it.

My route was to follow the road to le Chatelet and then an off-road climb (all rideable) to the Col des Montets. From here it's possible to descend to Montroc off-road and then follow the petit balcon nord back to Chamonix.

I enjoyed the final valley trails to take me home in time for Sunday evening dinner. I arrived at work on Monday morning feeling more like I had had a week of adventures than just a weekend!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Highland Trail 550 2015

My bike kitted out and ready for the journey to the start in Tyndrum


I was having a nightmare. It was day two of the Highland Trail and I was in the middle of the infamous Northern Loop in some of the most remote terrain possible in Scotland. The weather was grim. My rear wheel had chosen this moment to fold and was a mess of bent spokes. The situation was undoubtedly serious.
Then I started to notice there was something wrong with this scenario. The spokes were of the flat blade type - my wheel has round spokes. Some of the spokes seemed to be missing completely. Slowly the realisation dawned that I literally was having a nightmare.
I woke in a cold sweat - it was 5.30 am and 3 and a half hours before the start of the race!

Day 1, 12.45 am

The crescent moon was lighting up the clouds beautifully as I rolled across the wild moorlands. There was only half an hour's riding left to get to the Hydro bothy which was my target for the night. I think of this section as the amphibious track. Every 50 metres there seems to be a giant puddle and some of these are as long as the gaps between them. Some of them are only a few inches deep, but some are right up to the hub of a 29 inch wheel. In spite of all this I was really enjoying being out there riding.
It is not often that you have a sensible explanation for being somewhere like this at this time in the morning, but the Highland Trail seemed to be a great reason for that tonight!

The day's riding had started out in lovely warm conditions. As the pack had thinned out towards the Devil's Staircase some chat was shared with other riders.
I caught up with Andrew Hutcheson on the climb out of Kinlochleven. Andrew had been afflicted with cramp after trying to stick with the scorching pace set by Josh Ibbett. Not easy for any singlespeeder to keep up with a super motivated and strong rider on a geared bike.

Andrew Hutcheson crossing the Abhainn Rath
We soon reached the Abhainn Rath which is the first river crossing and the place where dry feet became a distant memory for the remainder of the race. I could just see Josh and Steve Heading in the distance at this point, probably about half an hour ahead. I opened up a small gap on Andrew as we pushed down the squelchy strath towards Loch Treig.
On the way to Loch Treig - Staoineag bothy in the background
From here it was quite easy going for a while until I reached the Corrieyairack Pass. Here the rain started and that was to be the end of the nice weather for the rest of the race. There was a small snow patch to cross near the top of the pass - a leftover from the heavy snows that Scotland has seen this winter.

Pizza in Fort Augustus set me up for the rest of the day's riding, up and over past Loch ma Stac where I had a closer inspection of the unusual and slightly spooky ruined tower house than the previous year.
The tower house on Loch Ma Stac
Soon I reached the Corrimony bothy where I had stopped at the end of day one in 2014 and spotted the bikes of Rich and Tom Seipp propped up. Tom is only 10 years old but was having a crack at the Highland Trail route with his dad. It was 10.30 pm which meant I was 45 minutes ahead of where I had been a year previously, so I pushed on into the fading light.

Day 2, 6.00 pm

I staggered forward into the wind up the obscenely steep quad bike track. A gust of wind knocked me back again. I couldn't feel my right hand due to the cold and my left hand wasn't much better. My feet felt like lumps of wood, completely numb.

Progress for the last hour and a half since leaving Glen Golly had been tortuous. The terrain is difficult at the best of times, especially one section which consists of a 19th century stalkers path that long ago fell into disrepair. Add to this wind gusting at gale force, showers of rain and penetrating cold and you have the perfect recipe for a challenging bike ride. This is what the Highland Trail is all about. This is the "Northern Loop" and I was just about to turn south and descend the Bealach Horn. From here on things would have to get easier. Conditions like these would surely result in hypothermia if maintained for more than a couple of hours.

I had woken at 3 am when Josh sneaked out of the bothy. I rolled over and went back to sleep until 4.15 when I started to stir and get ready to ride. The going was fairly easy for the first few hours and I made it to Oykel bridge for 11am in time for my first cooked breakfast of the ride.
Gobernuisgach, a remote outpost in a vast wilderness
All too soon this had led to Gobernuisgach and the entrance to Glen Golly where the truly empty wilderness begins. The land here has no traces of being tamed by man except for the track that the route follows and in places the landscape has repossessed even that.

Near the most northern point of the Trail with Loch Dionard in the distance
Once I had survived the descent of the Bealach Horn I had my sights set on hot food for dinner. In 2014 I arrived at Kylesku at 11.30 pm, far too late for any food. After the beating I had received from the weather I knew that hot food would be a huge morale and energy boost. I pressed on over the hill from Achfary with this in mind and arrived at the pub just before 9. I was delighted to get a table for dinner and a pint of Skye Brewery Blaven ale.

After consuming my gourmet 2 course dinner (puy lentils, monkfish and mussels were involved) I set out with the idea of doing another hour before finishing for the night. In the end I rolled on all the way to Achmelvich where I bivouacked next to the beach at about 1am.

Day 3, 9.00 pm

I stood on the pebble shore of Loch Strath na Sealga and savoured a rare moment of peace and dry weather. The evening sun was shining up the strath through the clouds and I felt relaxed and comfortable. For the first time since the afternoon of day one my clothes were all dry from the ankles up.

Loch Strath na Sealga in the evening sun
The day had begun with a 5 am start and I was soon on the roll into Lochinver. I wasn't feeling good as I set off into Glencanisp and I decided to have a lie down for half an hour at Suilags bothy. I reached the bothy at 6.50 am. I had assumed any occupants would still be in bed, however as I propped up my bike I heard voices and the sounds of breakfast being made. Unable to summon the energy to go in and talk to the bothy dwellers I got back on the bike and kept on riding.
On the way into Glencanisp forest with Suilven in the distance
The trudge through to the Cam Loch did not seem as bad as the previous year. This is a section which you are bound to underestimate unless you are unfortunate enough to have done it before. Soon I was on the road and rolling into the Oykel Bridge Hotel for another big breakfast.

The route through to Ullapool is easy going by Highland Trail standards so it wasn't too long before I found myself filling a basket with food in Tesco while the rain came down outside. As I was stuffing my face with sandwiches and pastries in the warm entrance of Tesco Andrew Hutcheson walked in. He had scratched at Fort Augustus after having back problems to add to his cramp on day one and had driven up from his home in Strathpeffer to see some riders come through. We had a good chat about the Trail before I got back on the road.

After pushing over the steep lump to get to Corrie Hallie I was into Fisherfield and reached Strath na Sealga. I passed the Shenavall bothy without stopping and reached the shores of the loch. The river crossing here was much wider than in 2014 and deeper too. I removed my baggy shorts and waded in - no point in trying to keep my bib tights dry and my shoes and socks were wet to begin with.
The Abhainn Strath na Sealga which I was about to cross and Beinn Dearg Mor
After the thigh deep crossing I stopped at the cottage of Larachantivore and ate my Tesco pasta dinner before pushing on into the fading light to cross the Clach na Frithealaidh and descend to Carnmore bothy arriving just after midnight.

Day 4, 4.00 pm

As I had passed through pubs and cafes on the Trail I had received messages from Josh who was out in the lead. "Josh says see you at the finish" and "Josh was here at 6 am" were a couple of examples. As I crossed the south Torridon hills the rumours became more frequent as a couple of fellow bikers reported sightings of Josh - I knew I wasn't far behind. Having nearly reached the valley at Achnashellach I came to a gate in a fence and spotted Josh just riding away from it.

At first I think his racer instincts made him consider riding off as fast as he could. Then he stopped and said "I think you just made my decision for me". Josh explained that the pivots in his full suspension frame had failed due to the dreadful conditions. He had been trying to nurse the bike round the rest of the route but having been caught by me he realised there was not much point in continuing and potentially doing more damage to the bike.

We chatted for a few minutes as we continued to the train station then shook hands and I carried on. I was disappointed for Josh that he had worked so hard to build a commanding lead and then lost it due to a mechanical.

I had made an error in my stay at Carnmore bothy the previous night. This is a strange bothy as it has actual beds, some of them with mattresses. I picked one of these to roll my sleeping kit out onto and started to blow into my thermarest. After a few breaths I realised this seemed pointless, stopped blowing and got into bed. An hour later I awoke shivering convulsively - the cold, damp mattress was sucking the warmth out of my body with no air in my thermarest to make it insulate. I therefore was not as well rested as I should have been when I stepped out into the rain at 6am that morning having slept through my alarm clock.

The morning had improved after that as I crossed the Tollie path without problems and made it to the Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe for a good breakfast. I managed to have a chat with my fiancée Sarah on the phone here although I was struggling to talk after I burnt my tongue on a hot piece of fried egg.
Yet another big breakfast - this one at the Whistle Stop café in Kinlochewe
After crossing through Torridon and passing Josh the Trail took me on past Attadale and into Glen Ling where I passed a large number of smelly dead deer - possibly killed by the snowy winter the highlands had recently experienced.
Eilean Donan castle and Loch Duich
Arriving in Dornie I tried to get a table in the Clachan pub but they were full up, so I had to go to the Dornie Hotel instead. The food here was not as good as the Clachan and the beer selection was dire - Guinness or lager - I opted for a pint of coke. While eating dinner I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the race. I was shocked to see that Steve Heading had scratched. Steve is a rock solid bike racer who had pursued me doggedly round the route in 2014. We had both ended up at the Clachan for dinner then and Steve had told me he had worked hard all day just to ensure that he made it to the pub before closing time. I speculated that the thought of having to achieve the same day's riding again this year in harder conditions might have wrecked his motivation to continue.

I was finding the knowledge of my 2014 times both a motivator and a source of disappointment. I had arrived for dinner in Dornie an hour ahead of my 2014 time, but my overnight stops were far shorter than the previous year. I should have been a few hours up but I was frustratingly only one hour up.
Ascending the Allt Grannda, 10:30 pm
With this in mind I rejected the idea of stopping for the night at the Camban bothy which comes at the top of the climb past the Allt Grannda waterfalls and pressed on down Glen Affric and into the endless forests around Tomich. Finally at 3 am I decided to have a sleep on the side of the track before tackling the hills that lead to Fort Augustus.

Day 5, 8.00 am

I had reached Fort Augustus too early to get a proper cafe breakfast, but the butchers shop was able to provide a bacon and Lorn sausage roll and a cup of sugary coffee. This was essential sustenance to get me down the Great Glen to Fort William and I enjoyed munching this while standing in the butchers shop.

The wind had been strong for the whole of the race so far and it showed no signs of letting up as I rode into it down the Caledonian Canal. What should have been an easy spin was an energy sapping grind.

I felt the need for more hot food in Fort William, so I stopped for lunch knowing my nearest competitor was in the same location where I had been at 7 pm the night before. This food and rest stoked me up for the final 6 hours of the ride down the West Highland Way. It hardly stopped raining for the whole of this time so I was soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone by the time I finally hit Tyndrum.
One of us was soaked and freezing, not sure which one. (Photo Sarah Autie)
My fiancée Sarah was waiting at the finish for a big hug under an umbrella and Alan Goldmith's friend Sarah was there to take finishers photos too. After that I had to go straight to the campsite showers to warm up before getting some dry clothes on.

After some dinner we bumped into Josh and went for a couple of pints at the pub to exchange stories from the Trail. Josh was already starting to plan for the 2016 Highland Trail having learned a lot from his attempt this year. He mentioned that not wrecking his body on the Highland Trail was important as he will be starting the Transcontinental Race in July. Returning as a veteran is a massive advantage for any challenger.

I was not expecting when I set off to ride the Highland Trail to be the first one back to Tyndrum. There were four of us from those who set off who looked to have the right kind of pace and sleep/lack of sleep strategy to win. It was unfortunate that the other three were taken out by the main trio of factors the Highland trail will tend to throw at you. The physical had taken out Andrew on day one, while on day 4 the mechanical had done for Josh and the mental for Steve. As the sole survivor of this bunch the race was mine to lose from then on.

I must emphasise how much harder it was in 2015 than 2014. I finished 26 minutes faster this year. In 2014 I spent around 22.5 hours stopped overnight in total compared to 15.5 hours this year. So I spent 6.5 hours more on the move in 2015. This was due to a combination of the cold, wet, windy weather and damp ground conditions both making the riding slower and also meaning that spending time in warm pubs and cafes recovering was more of a necessity than a luxury.

I think I'll take a break from the Highland Trail in 2016 and look for new adventures elsewhere.


Times are from starting riding to stopping for the night, so include café and pub stops

Day 1: 237km 16 hours 15 minutes
Day 2: 216km 20 hours 15 minutes
Day 3: 139km 19 hours
Day 4: 164km 21 hours
Day 5: 147km 14 hours 20 minutes

Total distance 906km
Total time 90 hours 50 minutes

Kit list

Shand Cycles custom steel frame
Salsa CroMoto rigid steel fork
29" wheels, 2.2" tyres
Singlespeed drivetrain (chainring and sprocket have done the HT550 twice!)
Garmin Edge 800 GPS (ran out of power and repeatedly crashed)
SP PD8 dynamo hub
Tout Terrain Plug III dynamo to USB power converter (allows charging above 14km/h)
Belkin USB power pack and USB cable to charge GPS
Exposure Revo front light
Cateye rear light
Alpkit Yak harness and drybag on handlebars
Alpkit Possum frame bag
Revelate Designs Viscacha seat pack
Rab Neutrino 250 sleeping bag
Thermarest NeoAir ground mat
Terra Nova bivvy bag
Embers Merino long sleeve jersey for riding and long sleeve base layer for sleeping
Thermal long-johns for sleeping
Assos bib shorts and bib longs
Norrona baggy shorts
Giordana warm long sleeve layer
Specialized Rime shoes
Gore Bike Wear waterproof jacket
Endura thermo merino socks
Dakine Traverse gloves
Specialized Vice helmet
Tools: Park Tools multi tool, Gerber multi tool, tubeless repair kit, pump, spoke key and chain tool
First aid kit
Canon G16 camera
Compass, whistle, paper maps printed at 50% on A5 paper in Ortlieb waterproof map case
Mobile phone, cash and credit cards
Petzl tikka xp headtorch
Toothbrush and toothpaste
2 x 500ml drink bottles.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Cairngorms Overnighter April 2015

After a rainy and lonely, but very comfortable Friday night at the Bruar bothy I whizzed on my bike down to Blair Atholl and then trundled in the car up the A9 to meet Andy and Danijel at the Mountain Cafe in Aviemore.
Coffee and cake consumed and plans formed we were almost ready to go.
An hour later after a fruitless search for a replacement Boa fastener for my Specialized Rime shoe which had broken that morning we finally set off at almost midday.
The ride out to Glenmore was very pleasant and scenic. The light was lovely and Danijel who is from Slovenia was keen to capture some photos of the Scottish scenery. Fresh snow from the night before and fresh early spring colours made for some eye catching views.
We soon slowed down as we hit the steep climb up over the shoulder of Bynack Mor. All three of us were riding singlespeed bikes and carrying overnight gear, so the steep parts of this were unrideable and became a slightly more sociable push.
As we approached the top of the climb, which was to be the high point of our ride at just under 800m we started to encounter pockets of fresh snow from the previous night's snow showers. This turned to a covering of a few inches as we crossed the plateau. Danijel was on a custom titanium Moonman fat bike, while Andy was on his 29+ wheeled Pugsley. Both of these machines were in their element on the snow. I was on my usual 29 inch wheeled Shand, which was perhaps not so well suited, but managed to cope. In places the snow covered the stone faced drainage channels that cross the path, so these threw up some nasty surprises when the front wheel unexpectedly dropped several inches into them.

Soon after we began to descend I was enjoying a little speed and trying to catch up with the other two after stopping to take photos. As I approached one of the frequent stone water bars I braked and the front wheel skidded on the snow causing me to whack the front wheel into the stone. Straight away the front tyre began to hiss loudly, so I knew a repair would be required. The repair took a few minutes and a couple of anchovies to repair by which time my hands were freezing.
We pressed on, keen to get warm again, Andy and I pushing up the next hill while Danijel was able to ride most of it due to his low gearing and grippy fat bike tyres (not to mention a healthy chunk of skill and strength).
As I was approaching the Fords of Avon I glanced back and was unable to see the other two. When they still didn't appear after a few minutes I backtracked to find them and could see from a distance that Andy had suffered a mechanical as they were both leaning over his bike. Andy's aluminium seatpost had jammed in the steel frame many moons ago and had chosen this moment to snap right where it entered the frame. With no means of extracting the broken section Andy's only option was to ride with no seat, either turning back or carrying on to complete the loop. While turning back would have been much shorter it would have meant that Andy would have missed out on the rest of the ride. We therefore convinced him to keep going - 75km with no seatpost - no problem!
A few minutes later we reached the Fords of Avon and stopped for a break in the surprisingly warm sun outside the shelter.

The next obstacle was the ford itself - pretty much knee deep icy water. I employed the "stride straight through" technique while the other two went for the "shoes and socks off" option. The waters were icy cold which wasn't really a surprise as there was a large snow drift on the far bank of the river.
Once shoes and socks had been put back on we continued up to the Lairig and Laoigh where a fantastic view down into Glen Derry opens out.

The clouds sweeping across the skies were illuminating the glen with bright patches of light which made the spring colours even more spectacular.

The descent to Derry lodge was enjoyed by all of us, although the water bars do interrupt the flow of the trail somewhat, most of them can be negotiated with minimal hassle once you get a feel for them. Some require extreme commitment and a well timed bunny hop meaning that a stop and dismount option is usually better on a laden bikepacking rig. Some of the stream crossings have become rather more interesting since the flash flooding of autumn 2014 washed out many of the crossings and the bridge at Derry Lodge (since replaced with a temporary structure) although none of this caused us any problems.
We hit the tarmac at the Linn of Dee for about 50 metres before diving back off road and heading up the glen and taking the Geldie burn tributary. The track was somewhat dull at this point, and not easy progress as we had turned west and into the wind. Andy was starting to suffer quite a bit due to not being able to sit down. This is the kind of riding where sitting down to pedal is really useful!
The track climbed very slowly until eventually we turned off the 4x4 track and onto singletrack which would take us over the watershed. This track has quite a few boggy spots, but also some quite rewarding bits of riding.

We had startled some red deer as we rode along this section, and we kept catching glimpses of a few of them just on the horizon running away from us. After a few minutes we noticed that every deer in the glen seemed to have gathered together below us - there must have been over 100 of them going for the safety in numbers strategy.
As we began to descend into Glen Feshie the sun was just finishing setting and Andy and Danijel were questioning me about how far we had to go and how long it would take. I had to admit that although I had walked this trail before about 10 years ago I had never ridden it and had little idea how long it would take. I tried my best to make an estimate that wouldn't give them false hope or dishearten them too much.

The trail took us over a bridge just above a spectacular waterfall and I stopped for a few photographs.
Andy's suffering was increasing and he just wanted to be done by this stage, so  he wasn't too impressed by the waterfall.
As we continued past an ancient shack the riding became smooth singletrack which sometimes turned to braided slivers of trail through the heather and offered up multiple choices. Eventually we ended up following a land rover track which crossed several fords in the by now quite large river Feshie. We avoided crossing these by climbing the ancient path on the steep side of the glen - although damaged by landslides the path is still passable with care, but not all rideable.
The light had by now faded to almost nothing so we put our lights on for the final ride in to the bothy.
The glen eventually widened out and the tree cover increased which I recognised as a sign that we were nearly there. A final splash through a small ford and the shape of the bothy emerged from the trees with a dull glow from the windows.
It was 9.45pm and it had been a long day of riding - especially for Andy with no seat! We were all hungry, so I fired up the stove and got some pasta on the go straight away. Stupidly we had only brought two sporks between three of us so Danijel improvised a spoon from an empty squeezy cheese tube and we dug in. Hot food can't be beaten after a long day on the hill.
Once we'd munched all the pasta and topped up with some extra cheese and oatcakes we had a wee tipple of whisky and got to know some of our fellow bothy dwellers a bit better.
Bothying can often result in meeting some interesting characters and this night was no exception! A group from the north east of England were in residence when we arrived and had consumed a prodigious amount of alcohol by the time we joined them.
At some point we noticed that the skies had cleared and went out to indulge in some late night photography before finally getting into our sleeping bags.
The next morning after coffee and sausages we made our way out to Feshiebridge and then on through the forest to be back in Aviemore just before midday.
Andy was most relieved to finally be able to sit down in the cafe after riding about 75km with no seat.
The numbers for the whole ride were 97km with just under 1,600m of height gain. Moving time according to the GPS was 8 hours 10 minutes out of the almost 24 hours we were out. A grand overnight trip!