Of course, after a sustained dry-ish spell, the Scottish weather would revert to unpredictable type in the week running up to the trip. Sunshine with showers seemed to be the consensus prediction from, variously, the BBC, the Met Office and the oddly addictive metcheck.com. Unabashed, the flurry of mid-week e-mails confirmed that, despite numbers fluctuating like diesel prices, It Was On.
Sunday morning loomed and, the TDL convoy rendezvoused with the S(l)ime Boys at the midge-infested Loch Chon car park, a few miles from Aberfoyle. We’d even passed a guy on a bike who looked remarkably like Ross. This was, however, less remarkable given the fact that he actually was Ross. And he was looking for us, given that it was now 20 minutes after the agreed start time. Oops. Add the usual faff time (including an inner tube replacement for Col’s gorgeous new Trek 6700 hardtail) and it was about 1115 when we finally hit the trail. Or rather the road up which we’d just driven. Twice, in Ross and Stu’s case. And, missing the turn for the start of the off-road, we rode back up it briefly before climbing up the forest track past the only-sign-posted-on-one-side Loch Dhu Cottage. We Were Off.
Of Big Hills and Big Rings
The track was inoffensive enough, typical of say, the fireroad climb at Mabie. Eventually settling on a left turn we headed broadly west, gears clicking down as we tackled the climb into the southern part of the Loch Ard Forest. The legs and lungs were getting a good warm-up by now as I traded holiday yarns with Ross who, to my horror, was: a) sounding not in the least bit out of breath but, worse still, was; b) climbing in the big ring. Get thee behind me…
Still, the track climbed and descended as we headed into Gleann Dubh and around the southern flanks of Beinn Dubh itself. As the feeling of remoteness began to set in, the surface varied between packed gravel and minor mud-fest but was rideable regardless. A cracking-looking descent seemed to be under construction on the Beinn itself. Or at least we hoped it was meant to be a descent! Then the first of the day’s downpours arrived, Ross and I eschewing waterproofs apparently safe in the knowledge that it would pass. Indeed it did, but that still didn’t mean we both weren’t soaked.
The MBR guide mentioned a gate by a cottage. That’ll be the one we passed back there then. Steps retraced (and barking dog mayhem left in our wake – oops!) and bikes lugged over said gate (and it were a big ‘un) we started what would be the seemingly relentless climb skirting Beinn Dubh and Beinn Uamha. Granny rings were engaged all round and, while we could all see our destination on this section, it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. Soon the 5 of us were strung out all over the hillside, or at least 3 of us were as Ross and Stu set a fearsome tempo at the front. At the back, I was toiling to keep up with BMFW and Big Col, although I did eventually bridge the gap, a feat I suspect was largely accomplished because they stopped for a well-earned jelly bean break! I’d like to say that I powered by them at this point but it was more a case of keeping going for fear of the consequences of stopping and having to remount. BMFW quipped later that they had delivered me to the bottom of the next climb, but I fear it was more a case of Deliverance, as my thighs by this point were squealing like piggies…
Eventually the Ross/Stu breakaway stopped, although a rubbing chain on Ross’ Maxlight was probably the reason rather than any physiological ills. Still, it gave us a chance to regroup and work out where we were on the map. Half way round after an hour of near constant climbing. Looking back, we’d come pretty far; looking ahead there was more to come.
I Can See The Pub From Here
Oddly, the remainder of the climbing didn’t seem to take too long and before we knew it we were looking down on Loch Lomond. In short, wow! A touristy cruise boat made its was north along the Loch as we marvelled at the scenery and tried to figure out what the various hills and other lochs were to the west. You don’t get this at a trail centre.
Having earned big gravity points on the way up, we would quickly cash them in on the switchback descent to Cailness and the shores of Loch Lomond. The start of the descent was reminiscent of Kelpie’s Staircase at Carron Valley and we were soon on our way. The rhythmic huffing and puffing of the climb (well, in my case at least) was replaced with a soundtrack of brakes and insane laughter. Big Col’s question about how long new pads take to bed in would be answered shortly and for the first time, most of us experienced the smell of burning discs. A quick squirt of water on discs resulted in a satisfying hiss of steam. As if recognising the perils of smoking discs (and that cold water + hot disc can often = warped disc!!), the heavens opened again. This time it was waterproofs all round, tho’, as things soon reached mildly biblical proportions.
We sheltered under the trees which clung defiantly to the hillside as we waited for this deluge to subside. Eventually deciding that this was unlikely to happen any time soon, we remounted and continued the descent which finally brought us to a gate and the West Highland Way. Or was it? A signpost suggested that an alternative, hidden trail was actually the WHW itself but since both it and the trail we were actually on both headed to Inversnaid, we agreed to simply go for it.
The next few km would have made for an amazing trail, had most of it actually been rideable. Suddenly I realised that this was the “largely unrideable” section of the WHW about which I’d read much on various bike forums. Pedal. Unclip. Heft bike up rocky bit. Remount. Clip in. Unclip. And so on. It was indeed as Big Col suggested A Waste Of F*****g Time clipping in much of the time. Still, the walkers were friendly and the female variety not unattractive either (Disclaimer: but not as nice as you, Mrs Stumpy!) and it wasn’t too long before the Inversnaid Hotel loomed through the trees. And over a bridge and down some steps which underlined the point that wooden stairs and cleated boots don’t mix, eh Col? I don’t think the German lassie in the shorts and gaiters noticed, honest.
Spoke Too Soon
The leisurely ‘nearly there, chaps’ stop in the Hotel car park meant that the (road) climb that followed was more of a schlep than it had first appeared. I guess that MBR’s use of the phrase ‘climb steeply’ should have forewarned me but tired legs and slight cramping saw me pushing a bit of the first road section. Rejoining the group, I discovered that we’d suffered our first on route mechanical. A busted spoke on BMFW’s rear wheel. Innocuous in itself, you’d think, but little did we realise that this meant that BMFW would now – ahem – ‘need’ a new uber-clicky hub, probably a Hope. Ooh, or a Chris King maybe. And, hey, what about those Superstar ones we saw advertised citing “24 points of engagement”? That’d be a fine noise indeed! We look forward to finding out just what the final bill will be for a new spoke. With BMFW also making rumblings about not being happy with his Hayes brakes and fancying Shimano Dual control, it’s a safe bet that Messrs Wiggle, Chain Reaction Cycles or PedalPower can expect a visit soon!
‘Stricken’ bikes aside, the peloton sped its way alongside Loch Arklet. Front mechs were confused all round as big rings were engaged and Le Train Multi-Colore fairly wheeched its way on the road back to the cars. Things got a bit lumpy once more when the road headed into the final mile or so. Those at la tete de la course got on the back of a hapless Landrover who I’d thought had pulled out in front of the group. God alone knows what he must have thought when 4 damp mtb-ers appeared in his mirrors, draughting him for all they could get. As the lone pursuivant I watched them disappear over the next crest as I fought to keep my own legs turning.
And, so, it was back to the cars (where did Ross and Stu actually park, by the way?!), midges and post-ride faff. The lack of occupants for the many other cars meant that the 3 Dons could safely bare their collective arse at the world as rain-soaked baggies and inners were swapped for dry clothes. I haven’t dared to look but I think the midge bites were confined to my arms and legs! After 4½ hours or so in the saddle, I don’t think the midges would have found much else to feast on anyway…