Scotland. In the UK it’s the promised land of mountain biking. That rocky northern country where the trails are plentiful, the access open and the hospitality welcoming and warm. But for most people, it means a fairly sizeable drive… particularly if you’re based in the south-east of the UK.
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Let’s take London to Fort William, for example. Fort William is home to a number of notable landmarks: Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British isles; Neptune’s Staircase, an impressive flight of canal locks; and of course the Nevis Range centre, home to numerous mountain bike trails and the Fort William Downhill World Cup.
The open road = not much fun
Driving from London to Fort William will take you a good nine and a half hours straight. That’s without a break for food, sleep or comfort and also optimistically reckoning that there will be neither traffic nor roadworks en route.
You could of course fly, but flying with a bike is a massive hassle and once you factor in getting there, checking in two hours ahead of departure, the security queue…
For anyone in the south-east, this makes Scotland a destination for long weekend breaks as a minimum.
Train + bike = win
But there is another way… train. And not just any train either, the Caledonian Sleeper. Book a cabin and you can load up in central London, sleep through the night and across the country, and wake up surrounded by mountains and fresh air.
This is also a great option if you a) don’t drive, b) want to reduce the environmental impact of your weekend adventuring or c) don’t fancy pushing your cortisol levels through the roof on the M6 motorway on a Friday night.
The service departs London Euston station every night of the week, and you can travel to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William and Aviemore, the latter two being particular good for mountain bikers.
A standard seat will set you back about £40 return, but if you want the full experience, go for a berth. There are two options here: Standard, where you may end up sharing with someone (same gender), which is also handy if two of you are travelling, and starts from £85; but for the full Agatha Christie experience, there’s first class. This gives you single occupancy and access to the first class lounges at your departure and arrival station – although there isn’t one at Fort William. Prices for this start at £135 return.
Both cabin types feature a little sink, a window, a complimentary sleep kit so you can freshen up, and give you access to the on-board lounge, which is a must-visit! Here, you can watch the city lights fade as you tuck into haggis, neeps and tatties washed down with a glass of whisky.
Bikes are stored on-board in the guard's car, but be aware that on some journeys the train will split en route. The guard looking after your carriage will inform you if this is the case.
When I travelled on the Sleeper, putting my bike bag in the guard's car would have meant a 4:30 wrangle to move it between carriages, however I was just about able to fit my bike in my berth, so could sleep through.
If it turns out there’s no room for your bike, by the way, the train company will transport it via road courier at no extra cost, but that does mean it’s probably not going to arrive when you do — great for longer stays, not so great for a weekend break.
In the morning, open your windows and enjoy the bracken-draped Highlands fly past your face as you tuck into some porridge.
Where to stay in Fort William
It’s called ‘The outdoor capital of the UK’ and as you’d expect from a title like that, accommodation is plentiful and friendly to those who tend to come back at the end of the day looking a little muddy and dishevelled.
There’s everything from big-budget hotels through to the standard chains like Premier Inn, and backpackers' hostels.
I stayed in the Scottish Youth Hostel Association Glen Nevis hostel, which is a little way out of town, next to the West Highland Way. It’s a five minute taxi ride, 15 minute bike ride, or 30 minute walk into town, but the location makes up for it.
As well as dorms of various sizes there are twin, double and triple rooms, plus a large self-catering kitchen if you want to prepare your own grub, though the hostel does offer meals. A bed will set you back from £16 a night, or you can get a room from £32… not bad!
For mountain bikers, there’s an external, locked garage for bike storage and a hosepipe for washing your bike down after.
It’s a great option for anyone travelling on a budget and it’s close to some great riding, and a fantastic pub. While it might look a little dated, there are extensive refurbishment works in the pipeline too.
Of course, the other option if you’re feeling very adventurous, and are sure the weather will hold up, is to ride out to an interesting stop and wild camp!
Now the important stuff — what’s the riding like?
One of the best things about Scotland — and there’s lots to love — is the ‘right to roam’, which means you ride pretty much anywhere, so long as cycling is not expressly forbidden. This means that there are loads of great rides to be found in and around Fort William.
A quick browse online or on Strava will throw up a tantalising selection of natural routes, from the gentle to the challenging, with many do-able in a few hours and others giving you a longer, more challenging adventure.
Of course, one of the big selling points of Fort William is the Nevis Range gondola, which transports you to the top of the famous World Cup downhill track, if you’re feeling like a challenge, as well as the Red Giant XC trail.
The Gondola is open, weather permitting, from April or May to mid-September and a day ticket will cost you £22, or a two-day pass £39.
There are myriad green, blue and red-graded trails, skills areas and jump lines on the mountainside immediately above the Nevis Range lift station, so there’s plenty of choice if it’s too windy and exposed up top.
One of the interesting things about the development and maintenance of these trails is that they are a collaboration between the Forestry Commission, who run the site, and established local trail groups. It's a successful partnership that's seen great new trails being created, as well as events and races.
It’s also well-worth grabbing some food at the Pine Martin cafe in the Nevis Range, but maybe steer clear of the haggis nachos if you’re about to hit the jump line. Mid-air cheesy haggis burps aren’t ideal.
A weekend-able adventure
All in all, if you’re short on time but yearning for big mountains and bigger skies, the Sleeper service to Fort William makes a big-mountain adventure possible.
That said, it’s only really viable if you live in the South East of England; factor in travelling to London in the first place and that eats into your precious weekend time. There are train routes up from other parts of the country, but the sleeper service is only available on the Caledonian Sleeper service from London.
However, it makes travelling to Scotland as much part of the adventure as being there, plus you arrive rested, and those are two nights you may have stayed in a hotel anyway. Increasing petrol costs also mean the train is becoming an ever more economical option.
It also makes Fort William a weekend stop-over option for anyone travelling through the UK en route to somewhere else, and arguably a lot more fun than fighting through tourists at Madame Tussauds.
In my opinion, a weekend by train and bike to Fort William (or Aviemore!) should be one for your mountain biking bucket list.
BikeRadar would like to thank No Fuss Events, the Scottish Forestry Commission and Outdoor Capital, who organised this trip and supplied accommodation plus travel on the Caledonian Sleeper. No Fuss Events organise a huge number of races in and around Scotland and work closely with the Forestry Commission to ensure trails are built safely and responsibly. Outdoor Capital is an organisation focussed on highlighting the adventure opportunities in and around Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.