You don’t half get some strange looks walking into a Tesco wearing cycling gear, especially when the bike bit is nowhere to be seen. Still, that was me in the quaint suburb of Glasgow known as Milngavie (pronounced Mill-guy, for our foreign readers) discovering yet again the folly of bibbing up before one’s early-morning hydration has worked its way through the system. The railway station loo was a disabled-only affair, protected by lock and key by ever-vigilant (cf “invisible”) ScotRail staff so an awkward, cleated mince to the land where Every Little Helps was required…
Supermarkets and public conveniences aside, Milngavie also marks the official start of the West Highland Way, that famous 84-mile walker’s Mecca joining Glasgow and Fort William via Loch Lomond and various emporia of tartan tat in-between. We’d previously traversed part of the WHW when we tackled a big day out near Aberfoyle a couple of years back, but this time John assured us that we’d be able to ride these southern sections.
So, kitting up in the railway station car park on a cold Sunday morning, roll call was taken. We 3 Dons (John, Graham and I) were joined by Baz and his nice new car-bone fee-bray Trek 9.7, David, John2 and his son Stewart. Giant hardtails were the order of the day suggesting that someone, somewhere is on commission. All present and correct, we set off out of the urban sprawl.
It can be quite jarring living in Scotland. One minute you’re dodging shopping Tesco trolleys and 1960s social “architecture” (yes, even in Milngavie), the next minute you’re alongside a river on nice trails and spinning happily into the countryside, as indeed we soon were. The WHW heads north-ish into Allander Park and, like Neil Young, John kept us by Down By The River – or at least Allander Water – on the outward leg as we progressed towards Mugdock Wood.
Mugdock is fairly popular among West of Scotland mountain bikers for its network of trails and jumps and the likes and it was tempting to veer off the WHW and check things out. However, that was not the order of the day this morning. We pressed on at reasonably leisurely pace, chatting before the trail narrowed and things strung out a little alongside Craigallian Loch. I even found myself at la tete de la course over the first climb of the day. David told me about his love of climbing and organising adventure races. He’d already joked that he was toting a pair of climbing shoes with the intent of leaving us when we reached Dumgoyne, although I’m still not convinced he really was joking! (Oh, and a word about those shorts, David, please…)
Baz took first DH honours of the day scorching down a rocky descent to the soundtrack of both Graham’s and my dodgy brakes (subsequent inspection of mine would reveal some nasty metal-on-metal action). He even pulled off a cracking right-hand turn at the bottom which he described with a big grin as, “Old school. Brakes. Hard on.” Must have been REALLY exciting then, Baz? Still, tent poles in the chamois or not, the rest of us turned left…
The pace towards Carbeth picked up a little, the group resembling an elastic band in parts as we extended then contracted at the odd gate or 2. After a short but fearsome wee climb atop which I was just a little too keen to stop and hold the gate for the rest of the group, I chatted with young Stewart who was reasonably new to mtbing but had already bagged Glentress and Ae with school trips. Clearly, school trips have got much better since I were a lad. We then found ourselves briefly on a quiet stretch of the A81 near Glengoyne Distillery where I realised I really am becoming an old get, instinctively sitting slightly behind and to the right of Stewart on the road – just as I do when riding with my 9 year-old daughter. I’m sure he’d have been mortified at that, but since he’d distanced his old man, someone had to do it!
It was too early in the ride to make a cake stop at the Distillery Café (which, being in tourist-friendly Scotland, was probably shut until May anyway) so we carried on before turning off-road once more and up a steep and occasionally switch-backed track. As ever, Graham’s arse was the first to disappear up the road but I chatted to Baz betwixt ragged breaths about his new steed and its handling characteristics compared to his old Giant. As if carefully scripted by the Gods of Schadenfreude, Baz had barely finished agreeing with my suggestion that it would climb like the proverbial angel when he started going backwards. Rapidly. He would later claim a slipped chain put the kybosh on his carbon-assisted ascent but then faced an inquisition as to why he wanted the granny gear in the first place. Of course, I’d been in it since half-way up the first section so had no such issues…
Contouring the lower part of the Strathblane Hills, we were pretty much on the way back now. A nice wee descent took us into Blanefield and a quick scoot round a housing estate before the start of a pretty relentless set of climbs. Graham and Baz set the pace here and we again regrouped by a farm, which at least explained the horse shit everywhere. We continued on once more and I quickly found myself in no-man’s land as Alberto and Andy remained uncatchable while the grupetto disappeared behind. I did get back in touch with the lead pair but not before some bastard trail runner: a) passed us and then; b) turned round to finally; c) repeat the feat once more. We’d catch him later but the damage was already done.
We stopped at the top of what John told us was supposed to be an epic descent to places unknown but we were continuing back another way. John2, David and Stewart had elected to take an earlier bail-out option back to Mugdock by this point so it was just the 4 of us. Fallen trees blocked our progress a few times, reminding me that while my climbing legs may be okay for this early in the year, I have a woman’s arms. Maybe it’s just because I don’t have one of those fancy carbon fibre hardtails. Still, trees crossed, limbo-ed under, etc, we were heading back down towards Milngavie.
The emergence of Starbucks and Costa-toting dog-walkers told us that the denizens of East Dunbartonshire were now awake and the instinct to hoon down the trails back through Mugdock had to be reined-in. As ever, lots of “good morning”, “hi there”, etc, etc from us responsible riders were met largely with scowls or silence. Obviously the caffeine had yet to kick in, or perhaps they really were just that miserable. Still, there were a few cheery smiles in amongst the mix so we won’t tar all of the walkers with the same brush just yet.
Computers registered 26km by the time we dismounted at the obelisk marking the southern end of the WHW in the precinct in Milngavie. Our own trip was also marked by our 4 manky bikes parked outside Costa coffee where a very passable flat white was a just reward for our first semi-epic of the year. There’s hopefully plenty more where that came from.