There are so many reason why someone might throw a leg over their bike and go riding. Exercise? Adventure? Socialising? It doesn't really matter why, but for me a few weeks ago I just needed a couple of days somewhere beautiful with my own thoughts (and an audio book), to reset. To recharge. Work was up, there was (is) a lot of jobs to be done at home. But I felt an overwhelming urge to pack up my bike with too much kit and head in to the hills. So for the first time in a long time, that's what I did, and it was wonderful.
This isn't a typical write-up of a bike trip. I'm not planning to recount each pedal stroke and take you on the journey with me. I'm going to dig in to what the outdoors means to me and why it can be such a tonic for the soul.
My plan was to jump on a train up to Tulloch, arrive around noon, ride the best gravel roads in the world* around Loch Ossian, stay the night in the Ben Alder Cottage bothy and then work my way home via some familiar and not so familiar trails, roads and bike lanes. Since the aim here was to clear my head and take a few deep breaths, this was to be less about grinding the miles out and more about letting the outside in.
*Very much my opinion, but I'm sticking with it :)
Therapy for me begins the day before a trip. It's hard to focus on anything other than the moment you're in when packing a bike for an overnighter. If you do, it's inevitable that you'll forget something critical like a pillow (done that), midge net (oh, the horror!) or battery pack (I said I was connecting with the outdoors, not travelling back in time...). Once you've squeezed everything in, unpacked and repacked two or three times, it'll be an hour past when you originally planned to bed down, so you can finally get to making sure the route is downloaded, bottles are filled and devices are charged, before having a shower, getting your clothes ready for the early start and heading out to make sure the tyre levers definitely are in with your tools. Then you get to bed. You see, no time at all to be thinking about work so far - total bliss!
My normal commute route brought me in to Glasgow where I jumped on a West Highland line train, threaded my fully-loaded bike into Scotfail's woefully lacking storage system (along with 5 other adventurous souls) and grabbed a seat. I always prefer to take transport on the way out if possible, rather than needing to meet a certain deadline potentially days after setting off. It's all part of the switching off process as that extra deadline does nothing to promote a stress-free time for me. Upon arrival at Tulloch station, I unhooked my bike from its "meat hook" and set off in search of gravel lovers heaven, Corrour Estate. The riding around here is truly magical, with views for days and the prefect mix of fast gravel tracks and enough loose material to teeter on the edge of the ever longed for "two wheel drift" (perhaps not the best approach with a fully loaded bike but keeps things interesting all the same).
The lack of people for large parts of the riding is an important thing for me. It allows for getting lost in deep thought and makes the interactions that do happen so much more eventful. Imagine the extreme where you've not seen another living being in weeks. That first person you bump into is going to get one hell of a brain dump! I think this is part of why people claim to experience the "draw of the mountains" or the "pull of the sea". Yes there are wonderful sights and a lack of modern convenience that transports you to a simpler way of living, but the contrast of isolation and intense personal interaction reignites in us what it means to be human. Focusing so intensely both on our own journey and those of others, means really experiencing where we are and why we're there. I always ask the people I meet "why". "Why this place?", "Why that bike?". It's an emotive question. It reaches deep. In business, the "why" is the reason you get out of bed in the morning to do what you do and for us at Huli that is to inspire the world to be more active.
Huge shout out to the folks at the wonderful Corrour Station House, they never fail to provide great beer, even better food, and enough dogs to keep you there way longer than you should! I needed a good feed before venturing South over the breath-taking Rannoch moor and picking my way up, up, up to the Ben Alder Cottage Bothy for the night.
The long summer days in Scotland are a blessing, giving an extended "golden hour" and time to just soak up the views. I know I said this wasn't going to be recap of the sights and sounds, but one cannot look over Rannoch Moor and overlook its mention. A captivating place that forces you to stop in your tracks and forget about the climb you just enjoyed. The last time I was on this path was about two years earlier, in the dark, riding the Badger Divide route during the Racing Collective's ScotDuro. While night riding has its own magic in the way it focuses your thoughts deep like a poetic analogy to the torch beam illuminating the ground immediately ahead, during the day the mind instead becomes clear and open when presented with the most far-reaching of vistas.
Tap, tap, tap, tap... A runner snaps me out of my hypnotic gaze as they trot past. Another person out to clear their head. This was probably a good thing as it bumped me back into the right frame of mind to tackle the wild descent down to the road. Be careful on this folks, it's not technical, just fast and loose!
Day one concluded at the remote Ben Alder Cottage, a haunted bothy on the shores of Loch Ericht. I never met the ghost during my stay, but I did spend the evening chatting to a family who had paddled across from Dalwhinnie in inflatable canoes. I always hope for some company at bothies, not because I don't want to be alone, but because the late arrival, immediate transition to sharing of deep and personal experiences and sudden departure has always fascinated me. In no other situation are you ever told the hopes, dreams, fears and regrets of a complete stranger, but in a bothy it just seems to happen. Perhaps it's the safety of knowing that the chance you'll meet again is so infinitesimally small that they can finally get everything off their chest that they bottle up in the "real world". Again, a few "why" questions go a long way here, so maybe it's just me... The midges were truly awful that evening, camping would have been hellish.
Day two had a different feel to it. More tarmac and civilisation lay ahead as I continued south towards home. The road heading East along the south shore of Loch Rannoch, smooth as if it were laid yesterday, brings with it a barrage of architecturally stunning residences. It's the kind of place that has you longing for a life of isolation and self-sufficiency, overlooking the water while chopping wood for the harsh winter. I digress...
From the pan flat hum of the asphalt, I turned right onto the remote gravel tracks between Meall a' Mhuic and Beinn Dearg, a beaut of a tree-lined climb that's featured on both the Highland Trail 550 and Great North Trail routes, as well as the aforementioned Badger Divide - a real gem. The cloud hadn't really lifted from the night before by this point, giving an eerie feel to the glen. It's incredible how the conditions can change the perception of a place. Not necessarily in that moment itself, but the association one has with the place upon reflection. My only other time here was deep into the night, so the slight mist I experienced this time has almost compounded my feelings of mystique and trepidation towards the area. Can't wait to go back, hopefully to experience it in a different outfit.
The big event of the day though came just after meeting an interesting guy in the Glenlyon Post Office Tea Room who was riding south along the Great North Trail. After a much needed scone with jam & cream I turned onto the epic road climb and descent that brushes the skirt of Ben Lawers, the highest peak of the Southern Highlands. Depending on the aims of the trip, the bike of choice and the state of fitness, I feel the balance between road and off-road can really make a route special. Too much of one and you start yearning for the other. In my opinion, the Second City Divide is a great example of a well crafted mixed-terrain long distance route, with both on- and off-road sections coming at just the right time. This road section was a welcome change and as the sun burned through, the temperatures crept up and the altimeter rose, my surroundings became more grand - a real feast for the senses. The climb is good, but the descent is better. No two-wheel drifting here though thank you very much!
For the rest of the day things became busier, as I rode the wonderful National Cycle Network 7's traffic-free conversion of an old Caledonian Railway through Glen Ogle, fuelled up at the new Club House cafe in Callander and enjoyed the calm, quiet lanes and flatlands around Stirling and Falkirk. The stark transition from the wilderness of the southern highlands, to the bustling scapes of a city centre promotes a curious feeling. Even just a day or so away from things makes one feel like an imposter in an otherwise over-familiar setting. Perhaps it was the fully loaded bike, or the stuck-midge constructed leggings, but either way I didn't hang around long enough to find out. I pedalled for home, sticking closely to the back lanes and enjoyed the last few hours of solitude.