Mountain biking for miles and miles in the Scottish wilds
A friend and fellow triathlete Nick reveals a superb off-the-beaten track mountain biking route from Tyndrum to Tyndrum and via Breadalbane (Perthshire) and Rannoch Moor.
Nick writes: Much as I have loved mountain biking since buying my first one in 1986, I have never been anything other than pretty rubbish at going over “technical” terrain. Visits to trail centres, such as Glentress, near Peebles, where there are big lumps in the way of riders are just hopeless. I do not have the balance or the eyesight or whatever to prevent myself crashing into things, falling off and becoming entirely frustrated.
What I can do fairly well is just keep going in a Forrest Gump sort of way, up and down hills all day long. Rather than go round and round a colour coded loop, trying not to fall over the same rock each time, I would rather head deep into wild country where I think the mountain bike comes into its own.
I had been thinking about a big day out for some time, on a route that would hopefully cover a lot of ground with minimum time on tarmac, and I thought I had found a good one.
Tyndrum to Tyndrum wild mountain biking
If you are going to do a big day on an MTB you have to start early, so at 7.30am on a dry September day I left Tyndrum behind on the West Highland Way and headed north. I had some concerns about the possibility of getting stranded in such remote countryside so, even with good weather forecast, I had plenty of food, spares, waterproofs and a survival bag. I also left behind a note of where I was going.
A few miles north of Tyndrum I took a farm road heading east toward Loch Lyon. This has recently been promoted as part of a trail cycle route called the Rings of Breadalbane but I was pleased to see that it had not been plastered with new signage. As I rode steadily up into the mist and cold between the mountains, it felt suitably like the start of an adventure.
After two further hours of thick mist things were becoming a little monotonous. Just a little bit of a view would have been appreciated. I knew I was riding alongside Loch Lyon but I hadn’t seen a glimpse of water and I was marking progress by counting river crossings.
Then, at the top of a steep rise near the end of the loch, I suddenly felt warmth on my back and looked around at a sunny panorama of hills floating up above a misty sea. As I descended, the mist cleared around me until I reached the tiny tarmac road at the head of Glen Lyon and could look ahead to a beautiful vista of heather and Scots pines. This was one of the short stretches of tarmac on my route so I enjoyed a few miles of gentle swooping descent down the glen.
I didn’t expect this ride to have many signs of civilisation but I knew I would pass one of the best cafés to be found anywhere, the Post Office at Bridge of Balgie, and sure enough at 11am I rolled up to the picnic tables beside the road and parked my bike. Go and visit for yourself if you get the chance but I can recommend the Earl Grey tea with almond cake.
A little beyond the cafe I left the road and headed north on another rough track heading for Loch Rannoch. It was more than warm now and I removed my helmet for the steep climb. This old route climbs high to the watershed between the two lochs and becomes rougher the further north you go. The first section of reasonable land rover track gives way to much wetter and stonier track, but all rideable.
Once over the watershed I picked up a good forestry road and began the long descent to Rannoch. The speed was a great buzz but halfway down I turned off onto a narrower track following the river down to the Carie campsite beside the loch. I had done this before and knew how beautiful a route it was. In the warm sun the pine trees filled the air with scent. The small river roared down a gorge on my right as I sped along. This was idyllic cycling.
I shot out from the trees on to the lochside road and more tarmac as I headed west again through the Black Wood of Rannoch, familiar to anyone who has done the Etape Caledonia. Near the end of the loch there was an obvious signpost marking a track to Bridge of Orchy, 18 miles to the south across the edge of Rannoch Moor and probably the wildest stretch of the route.
It was early afternoon and I could have done with another cafe stop, but that wasn’t going to happen out in the Scottish wilds. Instead, I lay on the grass and finished most of my supplies of flapjack and water. Then, still feeling ravenous, I pedalled into the forestry and was soon engulfed in the dense trees.
The road wound up and down and changed direction repeatedly, dividing left and right and thoroughly confusing my sense of direction. I couldn’t see over the trees to get my bearings from the surrounding hills and the streams I crossed seemed to flow in all directions. Of all things, I was saved by my novelty bicycle bell and its built-in compass. To my great surprise, this rudimentary toy-like gadget actually seemed to work and put me on the right road out of the forest.
After many miles I reached the end of the trees and simultaneously met the railway track, which put me back where I expected to be on the map. From this point there was no track marked but I had assumed there would be a route of some sort linking through to the main road. Unfortunately this proved wildly optimistic. Ahead of me was a flat expanse of peat bog running to the horizon. The general direction was obvious but it was going to be hard work.
Sure enough, the next two hours were spent pushing the bike from one patch of dry grass to the next trying to avoid the bogs in between. Luckily, the weather had been dry for many weeks or I might never have made it through. After a very tedious few miles I finally crossed under the rail line and set foot on a firm trail again near the Gorton bothy. Initially very rough, it gradually improved and my speed increased going downhill until I eventually popped out onto the main A82 and met civilisation again.
Civilisation was moving at high speed in both directions and I didn’t like it one bit. The short few miles south to Bridge of Orchy were extremely unpleasant and the turn off up to the station was a huge relief. From here, I rejoined the West Highland Way and soon met the turn off I had taken early that morning. It was 6pm when I reached the car after ten hours of almost continuous riding and walking over 70 miles of trail. I’d had a great day, on a great route and in great weather.
Nick runs a mobile bike mechanics company, Hammer & Cycle, based on the north side of Glasgow.