Simplification: Central Highland Bikepacking

“Do you guys want some cookies?”

A red Mazda had pulled into a lay-by, the driver exiting with a bag in his hand – a bag he was now holding out like a soigneur in Le Tour de France.

Andy declined, probably out of surprise. Bingo. I grabbed the bag in a single movement, cried “Thanks!” and put the bag of double chocolate cookies into the back of my jersey.

After riding 130 miles with another 50 to go, we might need a few cookies.

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Heading into the longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland

When I moved to Pitlochry, I went on a hunt to find people to run and cycle with. Some messages returned blanks; others, like the one Andy sent me, returned friendship.

After his successful West Highland Way attempt, Andy and I started talking about the next adventures. Bikepacking (cycle touring) became the subject of one run’s conversation.

I had bought a gravel bike before moving to Pitlochry, keen to explore new places, experience a journey through leg power, and be self-reliant. No sport is free, though, no matter how much people say it! However, a fortuitous conversation with a colleague who competes in this type of thing presented the chance to buy some touring bags.

Now the adventures could begin.

After Andy completed a tour of the Cairngorms over two days, it seemed logical to do a similar circular route out west. We settled on a route from Pitlochry to Kinlochleven, via a gravel road from Glen Lyon to Auch. After an overnight camp, we would take the West Highland Way to Fort William, before heading east to Dalwhinnie and following the A9 cycle path to Pitlochry.

There was one thing giving me a sense of trepidation, though. It’s easy to conceptualise a ride of 180 miles with 7500ft of gain; it’s a lot harder to ride it. I remembered this approximately 48 hours before the undertaking.

I had ridden 100 miles in one go several times, but that was a while ago. Since then, running has taken centre stage, with an occasional ride of 30 to 50 miles splattered into each month for added colour.

While I like my running wild, I quite enjoy my cycling on roads, but such an epic allowed for the wonderful blend of both pleasures – without the potential (read: certainty) for injury through mountain biking, which appears to dog me any time I touch a suspension- based two-wheeled contraption.

Plus, there is something deeply relaxing in the thought of taking a road bike with big tyres out with all of your gear, not out to break records but just to ride for the sake of it. You could drive to these places easily, but there is a thrill in doing it under your own steam.

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All packed and ready to go!

I performed the packing origami of fitting everything I needed into 25L of bags. When mindfulness coaches recommend you to uncluttered your life, removing that which is troubling or adding extra weight to your thoughts, you can do the same with an overnight trip: You can get by with very little when you are limited for space.

The morning broke; a crisp, misty morning with a dusting of ground frost and the subtle hint of dazzling sunshine to come. You can sugarcoat it a lot of ways, but there was a blatant fact: it was baltic.

A figure appeared through the mist. Andy was clad in all his layers, face obscured by a balaclava which emitted puffs of steam in the cold air.

“It is f*****g freezing”, he shivered. We had decided not to head off too early, waiting for the world to warm up a little.

Once everything was checked over, we wheeled out, speech muffled through our balaclavas and fingers numb with the near-zero temperature. We headed west, encouraged along by a gentle easterly wind that carried us towards Glen Lyon.

By Fortingall, the sun had burned off the sleepy mist of the morning, but it still sat low along the Tay to our left. After shedding some layers, we entered one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland.

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The winding road to Loch Lyon

Glen Lyon is a true treasure; quiet and undulating, its bends open and close the vista like a palace. Widening in grandeur and narrowing to allow enjoyment of every bend in the road. Walter Scott described it as the “longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland”. At 34 miles, it is the longest secluded glen in the country.

I had never been beyond Bridge of Balgie before, so as we pedalled our way towards Loch Lyon, I was like a kid in a sweet shop with the new landscape. Here, the comfier plantations rolled back, leaving broadleaves and pines coalesced on the banks of the sleepy hills.

The dam rose in front of us, charged with the hardest task any piece of infrastructure can be given: to hold back water. Poignantly, this monolith of human innovation was a reminder of some of the smaller but no less significant innovations of the communities who lived among these hills: MacGregors, Lyons, Menzies, Stewarts, Macnaughtans, MacGibbons and the Campbells of Glen Lyon.

The crumbled tarmac gave way to gravel. After an initial push, we began the rolling journey on the south side of Loch Lyon.

Andy had counted 7 river crossings on satellite images from Google. Some were more passable than others, and the first could be avoided by a “bridge” that made you quite glad you hadn’t packed that extra pair of undies that might have made the difference between getting across the bridge and not.

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We were really lapping it all up though. Here we were, the only people for miles around, riding through a beautiful glen on a grand adventure. You really start to get a feel for this bikepacking thing.

After a while, we reached the turning point in the road where we would head north and then continue west to Auch. There was, however, one final river crossing. With fatter tyres, there would have been no problem in riding straight through it. As it was, we looked for a narrower point to cross, preferably with some stepping stones. There were none to be found. We did entertain the idea of using the two girders which had been lashed together to create a DIY fence across the water. Upon a light push, however, we realised it was more swing than bridge.

We opted for the wet feet option.

We followed the rough track through Gleann Achaid-innis Chailein, dodging massive boulders and – with our new wading confidence – taking the direct routes through the rivers.

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The gravel track around Loch Lyon

After a few miles along the West Highland Way, we zoomed into Bridge of Orchy, stopping at the hotel for lunch.

Anyone who knows me will probably hear me wax lyrically about Harviestoun Brewery‘s ‘Broken Dial’ beer. It will usually be accompanied by my story that it is “impossible to find” and “I once found it in an isolated cafe outside of Falkirk”.

Well, I am pleased to inform – and Andy can attest – the Orchy Hotel also stocks ‘Broken Dial’ – ON TAP! I had to have some. We ordered chips and sat out in the sun, enjoying the October sunshine that, unlike in summer, doesn’t see you running back inside due to either wasps or midges. The chips, by the way, were out of this world – as was the beer.

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Bridge of Orchy pitstop

After a couple of hours on gravel, it was nice to be back on tarmac. The other good thing about October is that Glencoe is a lot less busy (there were actually points where no cars or buses were in sight!).

“It’s a dramatic glen, isn’t it?” I said to Andy. You can understand why tourists flock here: each bend is another photo opportunity, another snapshot into some essentially wild terrain beyond. Perhaps the flanks of the mountains act like curtains to people who do not scale them; dams to wilderness above and beyond their picture-perfect faces.

Yes, the buttresses and the slopes are impressive, but to those have not walked amongst and over them, perhaps the allure comes as much from the unknown as that which can be seen.

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Bhuachaille Etive Mor

The sun was lowering on the horizon. After starting almost 8 hours earlier, we turned towards Kinlochleven. We had toyed with the idea of pushing on, of gaining more ground, but our legs had given up. Plus, we reminded ourselves, this was not a race. In fact, the shorter the days were, the less satisfying they would be; less time spent here and not at a desk. We wanted to absorb as much as possible – to push on would be to imply we wanted it to end.

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The shores of Loch Leven

After a meal in the Tailrace Inn, we pushed up the West Highland Way, myself having flashbacks to racing up and down this during the Ring of Steall. We found a camping spot away from the path, with a beautiful view towards the Pap of Glencoe.

The temperature fell as the sun dropped below Loch Leven, fingers warmed by our slightly lamentable campfire. As the fire began to snuff out, we decided to turn in. I turned to my bivvy bag as the temperature dropped to 3C, glad I had four or five layers on!

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It didn’t look like this for long!

Even with that, it was a cold night. It’s hard to sleep soundly outdoors – especially when rutting stags are bellowing through the glens, the stars above are as bright as a pop stage, and your legs start to feel like frozen logs.

I lay there for 10 hours – whether I slept or not, I do not know. All I know is I was glad to be awake to watch the stars be slowly dimmed and replaced by a pastel blue sky as the gold dawn grew in the east.

Despite being cold in a sleeping bag, the idea of leaving any semblance of warmth behind is a mental struggle, only combatted by knowing that moving is a far more effective method of heating.

After packing up, we continued our vertical push up the WHW, eventually topping out on a wide ATV track at 300m. The track which hugs the back of the Mamores is rough. Large rocks and scree-like stones forced us to push again. Some old mountain bike skills came in handy in a desperate attempt to stay on the bike, taking some exciting lines at the edge of the path, back wheel swinging almost out of control at times.

Dropping down, down, down, the sun slowly warming the glens, we finally reached tarmac after a jarring 10km which took us nearly 90 minutes to cover!

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The big push up the WHW

Despite all the pushing and hanging off the back wheel, our legs were still trying to remember how to pedal. It was because of this that, upon joining tarmac which slowly bent skyward, we were huffing with burning legs. To our left, Ben Nevis loomed into our senses, even more imposing by being smothered in cloud.

We zoomed into Fort William, stopping briefly to grab a banana and Jamaican Ginger Bread in Tesco. This marked the end of our solitary journey, soon joining the busy road through Spean Bridge to Dalwhinnie.

By this point, the bikes had gained some weight through mud clinging to chains and gears. Andy’s chain was beginning to sound like the Clangers, all the oil peeled off to make a constant singing of metal.

Thankfully, our timing was good in missing any large volumes of traffic to Spean Bridge, and once we were beyond that we had mostly open roads.

The wind had turned direction, turning to assist us again. We were pushed along the road as the giant high-way of the Grey Corries, Aonachs and Ben Nevis passed above us.

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Riding along the West Highland Way

A quick break at Creag Meagaidh Nature Reserve to top-up on water and we made the final push to Laggan, entering the snaking road through trees and hillocks to the open Strath Mashie.

I have always imagined cycling along the rippling road from Laggan to Dalwhinnie, and it always came in my mind as part of some great adventure. I guess I achieved that dream!

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Dropping into Loch Laggan

Andy had been raving about the egg and tattie scone roll from the cafe in Dalwhinnie, so we made one more stop to refuel. I am pretty sure I had been eating all day, but after a night of tossing and turning, I wasn’t surprised to have been in need of a few more calories. At least, that’s what I told myself.

The newly surfaced cycle path down the A9 is wonderful, the wide tyres on our cross bikes humming like Formula 1 cars. On a road bike, this would have been delightful, but I was actually glad to get back on some gravelly, pot-holed road that hadn’t been resurfaced.

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Ben Vrackie up ahead!

With a north-west wind and an egg roll in our bellies, we flew down the final thirty miles. We passed through House of Bruar, and Ben Vrackie pierced into the horizon. Half a bonk and 45 minutes later, we pulled into Pitlochry.

The day after, I was surprised not to be sorer, the main thing that hurt were my glutes from all the hovering off the saddle and balancing on the rougher tracks.

There was something incredibly satisfying about pulling into Pitlochry after over 180 miles of cycling, sleeping under the stars and enjoying the simple pleasures of waking with the sun.

Our indoor lives have disassociated us from the natural cycle of the day and year. You can go out all day hiking, running or cycling, but to go that step further and extend it by a day, two days or more, you achieve something people spend hundreds on in mindfulness classes and yoga: Simplification.

Simplifying your thoughts to moving between geographical points, eating and drinking, finding a place to sleep and relying on no one but yourself takes effort, but it is far more satisfying than anything I know.

Choose your adventures and experience them. You can go a long way with your imagination.

Strava trace for day one and two.

Kit list

On the bike

1 x Endura short-sleeved jersey
1 x long-sleeved base
1 x Endura Pro SL gilet
1 x Montane rain jacket
1 x pair POC leg warmers
1 x bib shorts
1 x Hilly Merino socks
1 x shoes
1 x cap (for extra points)
2 x 500ml water bottles on side-entry cages

Saddle pack

1 x Vango Ultralite 350 sleeping bag
1 x The North Face Summit Assault Bivvy
1 x multimat roll mat

Handlebar Bag

1 x Mountain Equipment Arete Down Jacket
1 x Findra Enduro L/S base
1 x thermal tights
1 x Bridgedale thick socks
1 x spare Hilly Merino socks
1 x Rab skull cap
1 x Petzl Reactik Headtorch
1 x merino gloves

Frame Bag (excl. food)

2 x 35-44c inner tubes
1 x multitool
1 x pump
1 x puncture repair kit
2 x tyre levers
1 x Blackburn 400 lumen bar light
1 x Blackburn rear light
1 x miniature of Ben Nevis whisky!

Top Tube Bag

Phone, food, wallet

  • Food (approx. 2500 cals of nut/cereal/protein bars, Soreen, nuts and Voom bars)

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

3 thoughts on “Simplification: Central Highland Bikepacking

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