Making the Grade: 24 hours off the beaten track on a gravel bike

GT’s new Grade aims at opening up unpaved roads to the masses, but could it cope with Scottish Highland bothy biking?

This article was produced in association with GT.

For one of those brief seconds that somehow feels like an eternity, no one says anything. Andy was the first in the door and as a result is the closest to the axe. After the axe I can only see a hardback copy of Tolstoy’s War And Peace and a tin of haggis, each of which may just cut it as a makeshift (if somewhat unlikely) weapon. 

As it turns out, the two bearded men bedecked head to toe in khaki, are actually two pretty nice guys who’ve got the National Express up to the Scottish Highlands from Bristol and aren’t a physical threat after all. 

The lady in the lake stood ric up. again.:
The lady in the lake stood ric up. again.:

Bothy etiquette is an odd thing. We’re offered a share of the bounteous haggis and the fire the pair have built is warming but there’s still light, the rain’s off and a night’s worth of small talk can still be avoided by saddling back up and rolling to the next bothy. Are you on a racer or something?” Bloke Number One asks me, confused. “I am, yeah, sort of...,” I mumble swerving the opportunity to try to describe the GT Grade parked outside. In fact, GT doesn’t fully know how to describe it having plumped for the slightly dry ‘Enduroad’ banner on its website. 

Half way through the night Andy nudges me awake and before I can utter anything he puts his finger to his lips before turning to the sound of another person’s breathing coming from somewhere deep within the dark...

The gt grade + a wooden building =
The gt grade + a wooden building =

If someone showed you a Grade leant up outside a cafe on a bank holiday Monday it could, and would, pass as ‘just’ a road bike. Look a little deeper than the matte carbon finish and famous triple triangle frame design, however, and a bike that’s not quite like the rest of them begins to take shape. It’s burlier here, brawnier there and in short has been described to tackle the outdoor hinterland between road and ’cross.

Ric's time on mbuk really paid off...:
Ric's time on mbuk really paid off...:

We thank the lads for their kind offer of tinned haggis and co-habitation and make a move. No names were exchanged. The rain that pelted the A9 on our way north to Aviemore has now abated and the stunning Lochan Uaine opens up in front of us. Its weird, bright green colour was (apparently) caused by pixies washing their clothes in it, or the trees along the loch floor... 

Photographer Andy knows another bothy 10 miles or so away, and with the light just starting to fade and more rain forecast we start tapping out a decent pace. 

Forest Park and Ride

The forest roads around Glenmore Forest Park are wide and largely smooth thanks toa hardpack, sandy surface. The handlebar that I initially felt difficult to warm to comes into its own and allows me to open up my shoulders and find a naturally comfortable perch on the drops.However, it’s almost too polished a display as I nearly stack it on a fast section strewn with larger rounded rocks. On his 29in-wheeled mountain bike, Andy hasn’t even considered braking and I in turn am guilty of riding the bike in front of me a bit. The chunkier, wetter surroundings don’t much care for the slick tyres and I bobble off towards the undergrowth, my impending doom marked only by swearing and the loud squeal of wet disc brakes doing their best. I manage to haul the Grade back into line, averting one of the slowest, most pathetic topple-offs of this century in the process. 

Our route bisects the Lairig Ghru, a famous 20-mile trail cutting straight through the heart of the Cairngorms. The woods close in around us only to re-open again sporadically to offer glimpses of the steep, copper-coloured hillsides that now surround us. The distant noise of the odd bit of traffic has disappeared and any time we stop to check the map the wind rush gives way to an almost eerie quiet.

How very extreme...:
How very extreme...:

Now and again the trail breaks from its smooth undulations into lumpier rock sections and I get used to lopping the speed in half in order to pick my way through them more accurately. Our speed is nowhere near that which could be achieved on some beautiful Majorcan black top but we’re clipping on. With a couple more miles to go I notice that I’m tending to leave the rear derailleur lopping away at the 30T cog and focus my shifting between the front two rings. It makes it easier to deal with the forest road’s rises and falls and punchy short climbs. 

“This is one of my favourite wee singletrack sections anywhere,” Andy calls over his shoulder before disappearing from sight within seconds. This is now mountain bike territory and the GT is swamped. Wet roots, jagged rocks and a steeper gradient result in initial attempts at lines, then near crashes as the front end washes out, and a feeling of frustration. I get off and walk. 

My shoes are filled with a combination of grit and water, for the first time on the ride I’m feeling cold and given it’s gone 10pm, the light is beginning to drop as well. I’ve never spent a night in a bothy but at this moment anywhere even marginally drier and warmer than this sounds like heaven.

Out of Affric-a 

The plot of the film, Dog Soldiers, sees a group of British Army Special Forces stuck in a Scottish farmhouse as a pack of ravenous 8ft-tall werewolves attempt to make ribbons of them. It was set in Glen Affric, not a million miles from here and with night drawing in, it somehow makes Andy’s attempts to wedge the bothy door shut with a broken brush shaft all the more rubbish. 

The bothy is unusual given that it’s constructed entirely from wood. Indeed, a stove recess is boarded up as inviting cold/wet/lazy backpackers to stay in a bothy made entirely from potential stove fuel is asking for trouble. It’s dry though, and once changed into different kit my world feels like an altogether better place.

The interior is covered in carved and inked graffiti ranging from the predictably crude to the odd. We’re not quite sure who ‘The Cheese String Lad’ was/is but we certainly appreciated his efforts. There’s a large bunk bed frame in one corner and a bench in another. Spookily, a Native American-style dream catcher fashioned from wool, pine branches and cones hangs in the centre of the room, slowly rotating back and forth on some unseen draft. 

What a mug:
What a mug:

We light both of our small camp stoves and consume a surprisingly tasty boil-in-the-bag dinner before availing ourselves of some beers (weight saving is key) and a few pulls of whisky, seeing as it’s Scotland, and if someone were to find you in a bothy after midnight and not drinking whisky, there may well be trouble. 

Sneaking out for a late night pee involves taking your life in your hands as it turns out our head torches are the only source of light anywhere, and our faces quickly begin to feel like a dartboard for midges and God alone knows what else. 

Mice Age

There may be a distinct lack of man-sized German Shepherds prowling around, but that’s not to say that we don’t have visitors in the night. Mice pelt through the bothy, no doubt hunting for a nibble on the remnants of Andy’s meatballs. The bothy is warmer than I anticipated too, largely thanks to my sleeping bag being rated down to minus-10 degrees and my comfy Rab down jacket. Half way through the night Andy nudges me awake and before I can utter anything he puts his finger to his lips before turning to the sound of another person’s breathing coming from somewhere deep within the dark...

Thankfully, this was a dream, perhaps something to do with the dream catcher (or maybe the whisky), but I wake up petrified. This general sense of terror rockets when I realise that I’ve rolled right to the very edge of the over head-height top bunk. A fall from here, arms safely tucked within my sleeping bag, would be yet another supremely pathetic way to drastically injure myself. 

(Not) Wolf Hall

The morning arrives, werewolf-free. Coffee and porridge are consumed before Andy gets to work plotting our way back to the van and I load the Grade back up. Free of the food and drink, it’s impressive how well the various Alpkit bags tuck on to the bike. If the weather was better and you weren’t with a kit-laden photographer, you could almost halve the amount of baggage needed for a trip like this. 

A couple of river crossings later, we roll out a short section of fire road and the constant vibrations my body has been absorbing for the last two days are suddenly gone. The marble-smooth, tourist-friendly tarmac feels incredible. Despite having been virtually submerged in grit, gravel and moisture it’s impressive how fresh the GT feels too. The Shimano 105 drivetrain clicks through its range happily and precisely and the brakes clear their throat slightly before returning to their predictable best. 

Even the grade needs help sometimes:
Even the grade needs help sometimes:

We loop around the loch and as the porridge kicks in the world comes into focus again. In the Highlands of Scotland there are many different varieties of rain and the one that we find ourselves in this morning is of the finer and ‘warmer’ blend, so doesn’t bother us too much. The occasional distant shotgun pop punctuates the air and despite being on the main road to Aviemore, pretty much bang in the middle of the morning rush hour, we only see a couple of cars. 

Let's on road...:
Let's on road...:

A rotund pigeon chases three squabbling sparrows away from a birdhouse that’s almost certainly much too small for it. Festooned in a combination of bird and squirrel droppings, the wooden balcony directly beside our wobbly table in the cafe is pretty horrible. As are the microwaveable pies complete with microwaveable chips we’ve just had set in front of us as a token celebratory breakfast. 

So, the GT has made the grade; it’s a road bike that can indeed be ridden along just about any dotted line an OS map can muster, and has survived the night. Bothy biking has proved to be an incredible way to experience the wilds of the Scottish Highlands at their best. Proper adventures simply don’t get much cheaper and bike rides don’t get much more enthralling.

Bothy etiquette

It’s free but there are some unspoken rules

1. Have a back-up Of course, bothies offer a fantastic opportunity to meet interesting, new people and tend to be uninhabited but bump into a raucous group of backpackers and you could well wish you were somewhere else. Plan a back-up bothy. 

2. Clean up after There’s usually a brush about to help clean out a bothy after you’ve stayed a night. Take your rubbish with you and give it a quick sweep. It’s not really asking very much for free accommodation,is it?!

3. Dry bags are invaluable A good dry bag will cost a couple of quid and allow you to go to bed in dry pants. It doesn’t sound like much but trust us, you’d pay 10 times as much just before you ping a pair of sodden cycling shorts across the room, ready for the morning. 

4. Head torches Fully charged head torch batteries can be the difference between standing in human excrement and not standing in human excrement, need we say more?

5. Be prepared for company If you do get visitors, be welcoming and offer them some food or a hot drink. You are in a wild and lonely place, after all...

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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