Horse for the Course is back!
BikeRadar’s much-loved Horse for the Course feature is back and kicking for 2021. Throughout the year, we’ll bring you reports of the most epic rides and races from across the BikeRadar team (Covid restrictions permitting), taking a deep dive into the bikes and kit used for each adventure. If you’re thirsty for tales of daring on-bike deeds, take a dip into our extensive Horse for the Course archive for a taste of what’s to come.
During the one holiday I managed to take back home in Scotland in 2020, I squeezed in a one-night, 420km bikepacking trip that roughly circumnavigated the Cairngorms mountain range.
Despite growing up a mere hour’s drive away, the riding to the northeast of Dundee was largely a mystery to me, and the route was planned to explore as much of this area as possible.
In an otherwise disappointing year on the bike, this trip stands out as a highlight and, rather than making me rueful for missed opportunities, recalling it here has only made me excited to plan similarly stupid adventures in 2021 and beyond.
Jack’s two-day Scottish bikepacking adventure
- The course: A 420km DIY loop from my home in Crieff and around the Cairngorms
- The horse: 2021 Vitus Energie EVO CES eTap Force with a few choice swaps
- The goal: Explore beautiful new gravel and paved roads on a solo, pandemic-approved bikepacking overnighter and get the urge to ride for zillions of hours out of my system
I decided to take Vitus’s then-unreleased Energie CRS EVO with me to Scotland. In between catching up with family and friends, I intended to do little else than ride my bike, so the trip was a great excuse to put in a pile of miles on the bike before it launched.
The Energie is nominally a cyclocross bike, but its generous tyre clearances, mudguard mounts and long geometry give it a very gravel-like silhouette. In any case, I had already put in a few longer rides on the bike and I was confident it would make a fine companion for my bikepacking jolly.
That said, I made a few small adjustments to the stock build before setting off.
To start, I swapped the stock saddle in favour of a Pro Stealth – my all-time favourite saddle. The Energie’s stock saddle is a perfectly inoffensive albeit narrow perch but, on such a long ride, I wanted to ensure my butt was as comfortable as possible.
I also swapped the 33mm-wide Vee XCX cyclocross tyres in favour of a pair of 36mm-wide WTB Exposure tyres.
Swapping to such a luxuriously squashy high volume tyre would improve comfort and, as a slick, it would also have lower rolling resistance – attributes I’d be more than thankful for at the end of the day.
I only decided to swap them on the morning of the ride, but I deemed the 20 minutes it would take to set the tyres up tubeless worth it. Mercifully, they went up without a hitch.
For luggage, I fitted a Road Runner Bags Burrito Supreme handlebar bag up-front. This held snacks, a Rapha Shakedry waterproof jacket, suncream (it is actually possible to get sunburn in Scotland) and a battery pack.
My Aiguille Alpine frame wedge then held spare layers, sandwiches and other bits and bobs.
A Carradice Super C saddle bag supported by a matching Bagman rack held my sleeping bag, mat and bivvy bag. I was only planning to be away for one or two nights, so I decided to leave behind cooking equipment.
A note on the saddle bag: though saddle pack-style bags are more popular for bikepacking, I personally prefer the stability, volume and ease-of-access that a traditional saddle pack offers. They’re much easier to retrieve kit from while riding and the long straps make squashing additional guff in much easier.
The eagle-eyed will note in the photos from the ride that I only had a single bottle cage fitted to the bike – this is not by choice. The framepack obscured the seat tube bottle cage bosses and, while a tiny bottle might have fitted, I didn’t have one.
I also (idiotically) only brought a single 500ml bottle with me to Scotland, so additional water was stashed in a bottle in the saddle pack.
My route would take me east from my parent’s home near Crieff towards Perth and onwards to Dundee, where I would join the Angus Coastal Trail as far as Montrose.
From there, I would turn inland and northward towards Fettercairn, and over Cairn o’ Mount – a fierce 3.3km climb that averages 10 per cent, maxing out at 15 per cent.
Once over the climb, I would continue trending northwest-ish through the eastern limit of the Cairngorms towards Dufftown, where I would stop for the night.
A ripping tailwind made a welcome appearance and, with a panicked tubeless setup behind me, I set off at a leisurely 8am through the largely flat Strathearn valley towards Perth.
Even at this early-ish hour on a Sunday, the September harvest was well underway, filling the air with a rich mix of malty aromas from the hayfields and the cool sharpness of freshly-turned clod in the tattie furrows.
While my nose’s appetite was sated, my tummy was not. Arriving in an eerily-deserted Perth, I made my way to the The Weigh-In and procured an appropriately calorific second breakfast – a double egg and tattie scone roll with brown sauce, thank you.
I immediately regretted eating this once I hit the steep climb out of Perth, but quickly forgot as soon as I started the rip-roaring descent into the Carse of Gowrie.
This pancake-flat area west of Dundee is famed for its soft fruit growing and is – if you view it through squinted eyes and grimy Oakleys – almost Kansas-like with its large barns and unusually straight roads.
After riding through Dundee (Scotland’s sunniest city, I’ll have you know) and Broughty Ferry on the riverside path, I joined the Angus Coastal Path.
This mostly off-road trail shares its route with the NCN1 as far as Arbroath. The Vitus’s new fast but squishy tyres were very welcome here as I was able to rattle along the gravelly surface at a fair clip.
After a brief sunny stop at Lunan Bay to snack, while hidden among dunes of rattling marram grass, I rolled into Montrose.
My route would take me through no large settlements on the ~115km section between Montrose and Dufftown, so I decided to stock up on food in town.
After raiding the local Greggs (a chain of thoroughly-mediocre-yet-adored bakeries in the UK for our overseas readers), I made my way through farmland towards Fettercairn, where the Cairn o’ Mount loomed ahead.
By UK standards, Cairn o’ Mount is a big ol’ climb, boasting 323m of ascent – hardly alpine in scale, but more than steep and long enough to be rather uncomfortable on a loaded bike.
While the Vitus’s 1× SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset was a joy to use on undulating gravel rides and less vertiginous road riding, I was cursing its 38/33t easy gear as I ground up the completely exposed climb under the sun.
After thoroughly soaking myself in sweat on the climb, I donned all of my layers before starting the long descent off of the mountain.
The next 80km were a blur of lovely rolling hills and forcing myself to eat unappetising sandwiches on quiet roads.
While not hugely varied, this agrarian area between Strachan and Lumsden is packed with excellent riding. None of the climbs are too taxing and, with the cool September evening setting in, it was a joy to glide through this landscape with just the dull ache of a long day in the saddle to keep me company.
The next hour was spent enjoying sweeping corners under a huge fat moon with next to no traffic (I think fewer than five cars passed me in the last 80km of riding).
The Cairngorm plateau is known for its hostile climate but I was treated to a breathless and oddly quiet night, with the cold but still air biting through all of my piled-on layers as I sprinted up each small climb to keep warm.
Though I had enjoyed weather as warm as 23ºC at the top of Cairn o’ Mount, the cloudless night saw temperatures drop as low as 7ºC according to my Garmin. These swings in temperature are typical of riding in the UK in autumn, forcing you to bring a lot of kit if you want to stay comfortable.
Though typically well-maintained, high mountain roads in Scotland tend to be surfaced in a peculiar type of tarmac that uses a coarser aggregate than usual. This gives the roads a very ‘open grained’ texture that can feel frustratingly draggy on narrower tyres. The Exposures were a joy here as they skimmed over the surface with ease.
Arriving in Dufftown, I had no definite spot planned to camp for the night but guessed there would be a suitably quiet and secluded spot to be found along the River Spey.
After a few minutes of noodling among the dozens of distillery warehouses that line this stretch of the river, I found a small patch of beech forest that was out of view of the path below and the road above.
Beech forests are my preferred camping spot – decades of dropped beech leaves create a luxuriously squishy mattress to bed down upon and their impenetrable canopy gives complete protection in rain.
Once tucked into my bivvy bag, I was lulled to sleep by 275km in the legs, a quickly downed wheat beer and the gentle aroma of Balvenie wafting over from the warehouse across the water.
I awoke to find it had been chucking it down with rain all night, but my beech tree had done a remarkable job of keeping me dry.
After breaking camp, I joined the Speyside Way, one of four official long-distance walking routes in Scotland.
The Speyside Way follows the course of the Spey River, a key area in the whisky industry and runs alongside – and even through – a dozen or so distilleries. All of these were once serviced by a disused railway, the bed of which forms much of the well-maintained path I was riding.
Despite the early hour, I enjoyed every whiff of Aberlour, Dailuaine, Dalmunach, Knockando and Tamdhu as I trundled along, dreaming of a future on-bike tasting tour – perhaps one for the future.
The quality of the track deteriorated after the Tamdhu distillery and became very muddy so, now regretting the switch to slick tyres, I joined the road that runs parallel to the river.
The B9012 is picturesque and weaves its way through aromatic Scots pine plantations, though the charm was broken by the occasional moody glare from the windows of an ostentatious fishing lodge. This beat of the river really is the playground of the rich.
Not wanting to break with tradition, I scoffed a second breakfast almost identical to the day before in Speybridge and, crossing the town’s namesake, ground into a fierce headwind as I made my way to Aviemore.
This is a road best-enjoyed on a clear day because the great defile that is the Lairig Ghru can be seen standing sentinel on the Cairngorm massif.
Joining the NCN7 in Aviemore, the route then passed through the Rothiemurchus forest in vivid fungal bloom, with the mossy carpet of forest teeming with brackets of cheery yellow chanterelles, before becoming exposed into the stiffening headwind.
I’ve used aero extensions on a few long rides now and have grown to love them. They offer an additional (and comfortable) position on the bike and make a huge difference when dealing with a headwind.
However, by now I was cursing – with every pedal stroke – the fact I hadn’t fitted them for this ride. The bike’s 44cm-wide bars are great for control and comfort, but are frustrating when you want to adopt as narrow and fast a position as possible.
The NCN7 follows the alignment of the old A9 after Newtonmore and is largely traffic-free. After grinding away in my easiest gear for a few miles and bracing myself through a heavy squally shower, the headwind finally turned into a tailwind as I crested the Drumochter Pass.
Smashing down the rollercoaster-like, freshly-paved cycle path, I munched away on a macaroni and cheese pie (a Scottish delicacy and exactly as delicious as it sounds) on the hoof for the final push home.
At this point, my dad offered to pick me up in Dunkeld so I could get home early for a farewell dinner before I started my trip back to Bristol.
Satisfied with the 188km I’d already clocked that day – and 420km in total – I took him up on the offer and used the extra time at home to get thoroughly merry on malt. A fitting end to a superb couple of days on the bike.
An unforgettable ride in an unforgettable year
The ride confirmed my feelings about the Energie – though it could be a tiger between the cyclocross tapes, it also offers a genuinely versatile package. With a swap to faster tyres and slightly easier gearing, it could pass as an endurance road bike.
Grinding into a headwind for hours on end also convinced me to never ride without aero extensions on a ride like this again.
I also got everything I wanted out of the route: solitude, a real challenge and time on beautiful roads. The east of Scotland really does have it all.
This trip was the pinnacle of two-and-a-half weeks of riding in which I clocked just under 875km. I felt fairly fit after a summer with plenty of time on the pedals (what else was there to do!) and I’m very thankful to have got the chance to pack in such a daft wee adventure before coronavirus restrictions once again loomed large.
I conclude by raising a glass of Speyside malt and say here’s to more of the same in 2021.