So what would it be? Haggis and cheese toastie? Haggis and bacon? Given where we found ourselves, our last chance for sustenance in the next 75 kilometres of Highland gravel was always going to be haggis with something or another.
We’d just sampled some top-notch Scotch at the Dalwhinnie Distillery, in the eponymous village on the western flank of the Cairngorms, and now I was about to eat Scotland’s favourite delicacy for the first time. A more Scottish scene you couldn’t imagine. Until the rain began lashing it down, anyway…
We’d come to the Scottish Highlands for the final in our three-part Komoot Adventures series. The best until last? That was the hope. None of us – myself, Komoot’s media manager Rob Marshall or photographer Joe Branston – had ridden our bikes up here before, but we’d heard the legends. We’d planned to go out with a bang, losing ourselves in the remote landscapes of northern Scotland and splitting our two days of riding with some wild camping.
More Komoot Adventures
In this three-part series, Adrian Miles samples some of the UK’s finest gravel riding. Catch up on the first two installments:
Our Bombtrack bikes were fully laden with all the food and equipment we’d need over the next two days, giving them the handling and turning circle of an oil tanker. It took some adjusting to, after coming from my sprightly road bike, but did fade once on the bike – assisted in no small part by the distraction of the stunning scenery and the seemingly endless trail that stretched out before us.
Momentum was slow early on, as we frequently paused to allow the eye-popping vistas wash over us. We were also climbing a steep hill out of our base, the sleepy village of Kinloch Rannoch. This may also have had an impact on our progress.
To fill the considerable holes in our knowledge of the region, we had recruited the planning expertise of Komoot ‘Pioneer’ and local rider Neil Henderson. The path to Pioneer level involves having ridden a lot in a particular area and knowing every nook and cranny.
Neil had several suggestions for our route, which included sections from a couple of gravel routes whose popularity is surging: the Badger Divide and the Highland Trail 550, more on which later. To this we added a couple of other local highlights and we had a largely off-road (but accessible in terms of difficulty) 140km loop, which promised nothing short of the best gravel trails Scotland has to offer.
“These trails run from super-smooth to boggy and everything in between,” says Neil. “The route takes in some of the most stunning scenery Scotland has to offer and links together seven beautiful lochs, including Loch Ericht, Loch Ossian and Loch Rannoch. It’s remote, though, with the only resupply being Corrour Station – an absolute must on any ride in these parts.”
Adrian’s bike | Bombtrack Hook EXT-C
- Price: £3,050
- Frame: Carbon
- Fork: Carbon, triple cage mounts
- Groupset: SRAM Rival 1×11, 40t chainring, 11-42t cassette, hydraulic disc brakes
- Wheels: Hunt Adventure Sport 27.5in wheels, WTB Venture 2in tyres
- Finishing kit: PRO saddle, CX-10 bar, Roam stem
Last time out, on our tough beginnings on the Trans-Cambrian Way, we had been dropped into the deep end, but there was less trepidation and more calmness here in the Highlands.
The route appeared to be more rideable, with better trails and less climbing, even if the weather was more unpredictable this far north. Still, there were hills to be conquered and on the climb out of Kinloch Rannoch, we were out of the saddle, heaving our bikes from side to side.
Through this series, each time we’ve left the roads behind and hit the gravel, the sense of tranquillity and isolation have been palpable. And this has risen exponentially as we’ve gone deeper into the sticks.
The first 35km would take us to Dalwhinnie Distillery and the promise of sampling the local produce. We’d also siphon off a bottle for later on around the campfire, which would likely offer a deeper and more satisfying warming effect than any of the clothing we’d packed.
Before reaching that promised land, however, there was the other promise that Neil had mentioned at the start – crossing that aforementioned “boggy” bit. It would transpire that “boggy” was a gross understatement, with the emphasis very firmly on gross.
This stretch of land emitted a foul stench, a stench that’d we’d be carrying with us long after passing over it. Or through it. We would make it across, but not after our feet were engulfed in its stinking muck. I’d plumbed other depths all summer long, but now I had found a nailed-on candidate for worst surface to ride a bike on.
But bog can only last so long and we were soon back on proper tracks, only now carrying more of a pong. Fortunately, there wasn’t a soul around with the bad luck of being downwind of us.
We skirted a loch that had its glass topped up by a series of small waterfalls, audible amid the silence. Our only sentient company to date had been a handful of Highland cows and hardy sheep, and we’d only have human contact once more today, at the distillery.
With just 35km on the computer, we might otherwise have felt threatened by the perilous dark skies circling above our heads, but we departed Dalwhinnie as bon vivants, with whisky and the world’s heaviest toasties sloshing around in our stomachs.
The three of us would have only ourselves for company for the next 24 hours as we continued on our path to our overnight spot, which was perhaps for the best given the intense odour we were still emitting.
Our bikes all had a tubeless setup, which had proved reliable through the summer so far, without a single puncture, but given our passage into wilderness, I couldn’t help but interpret every creak and groan as a tyre pressure problem.
Carry on camping
Our camping location was set to be beside Loch Ossian and while we didn’t have a specific spot in mind, Neil had told us there were plenty of options to wild camp in the tree-lined banks next to the water. To get there, we would pick up the Badger Divide after a brief section on the Highland 550.
The former is a 320km bikepacking route that traverses the Highlands, linking the cities of Inverness and Glasgow. It was drawn by off-road enthusiast Stu Allan, and follows heritage paths, long-distance trails and a mix of estate and forestry gravel roads, with paved roads kept to a minimum.
Before we sampled it, we locked horns with a small section of the Highland 550 – a 550-mile self-supported mountain bike route inspired by the Tour Divide in the USA. Our section would be a reasonably friendly portion of a tough route that can turn fiendish. Friendly, at least, had it not been for the intense period of wet weather, which reintroduced bog to all our lives.
Rob’s bike | Bombtrack Audax
- Price: £2,600
- Frame: Steel
- Fork: Carbon
- Groupset: Shimano 105 hydraulic disc brakes, 48/32t chainset, 11-32t cassette, Shimano Ultegra front and rear derailleur
- Wheels: Hunt Adventure Sport 650b wheels, WTB Byway 47mm front tyre, WTB Horizon 47mm rear tyre
Once we joined up with the Badger Divide, we were deposited in gravel heaven, with long and winding gravel tracks and fire roads gently undulating through an ever-varying canvas between lochs Laggan and Ossian.
Finally, after a summer of reaching, I’d found the perfect terrain for my gravel bike, the sweet spot between tarmac and singletrack.
Up ahead we could spy heavy rainfall, but the sun stayed with us as time began to run out on day one. As did a rotten headwind. When arranging our Ortleib bike bags for the trip, Rob had opted for two front panniers and it now came to haunt him as the wind buffeted him backwards. It brought an early end to proceedings and we decided to set up camp.
I was a bit apprehensive about camping, mainly because of the cold. However, beside a roaring campfire, scoffing a reheated chilli con carne and making light work of our Dalwhinnie 15, it became a night to remember. Out of the wind and with moonlight bouncing off the loch, we felt very satisfied with our day.
Hanging around isn’t the done thing on the morning after a wild camp and we couldn’t wait to get pedalling, especially with the promise of a hot breakfast at Corrour station, a 30-minute ride away and the sole staging post for miles in all directions.
It’s the highest mainline station in the UK and best known for its appearance in 1990s classic Trainspotting. We only spotted one – the Caledonian Sleeper train, which travels overnight between London and Fort William.
Discussion over breakfast was all about the scenery and how Scotland might just be the holy grail for the off-road cyclist. The varied terrain brought to mind faraway places, such as New Zealand, Canada and Norway. If you have a gravel bike, plan a trip here. If you don’t, fix yourself up with one, then plan a trip.
The best of the gravel sections were still ahead of us. We climbed away from Corrour on a sandy, smooth track, punctuated by small mountain streams.
The views were breath-taking, accentuated by the rain moving in along the valleys. We braced ourselves to be hit by it at the summit, passing a bikepacker who’d yet to emerge from his bivvy cocoon. Turning downhill, we barrelled down a deliciously bendy descent, splashing through streams and swerving threatening rocks.
It was a joyous ride, all the way back to our base at Kinloch Rannoch – a ride that was the perfect culmination of a summer series of rides that challenged us, almost broke me at times, but, ultimately, saw me end up as the newest convert to the church of gravel.
Plan your own Highlands adventure
Meet Neil Henderson, the Komoot Pioneer who organised the team’s Highland fling.
“I’m just an average guy who found bikes a bit later in life and is trying to make up for lost time. In the last five years I’ve raced a few seasons of cyclocross, done a bit of touring around Scotland and completed two ultra-distance cycling events: the Transcontinental Race and the 2020 Atlas Mountain Race. I love just how much distance you can cover in a relatively short period of time and exploring local lanes and new destinations.
“Cycling in Scotland can be one of the toughest, but ultimately the most rewarding, experiences. For starters, the scenery is as varied as the weather. From dramatic mountains shrouded in mist to scenic glens, Scotland’s cycling routes will impress even the most seasoned cyclists.
“Plus, with the Freedom to Roam Act, you can explore gravel and mixed terrain routes throughout all of Scotland (albeit with some exceptions), as long as you act responsibly.”
- “I follow lots of people on Komoot that I find really inspiring and they get me amped up to explore and ride more. That’s really useful if you’re all out of ideas.”
- “Check the way types and surfaces when creating a route on Komoot to make sure you’re routing in enough gravel – or none if that’s your thing!”