We head to the far north of Scotland, to a land of ancient mountains, secluded lochs and amazing trails to see why this area attracts the adventurous mountain biker back time and time again.
It took far longer than it should for me to explore the north of Scotland. I'm not talking about the relativity accessible highlands of Glencoe or Cairngorm, but the genuine north of Scotland. Proper North. Now this is not to say that the more southerly latitudes of Scotland are not excellent, this could not be further from the truth.
Travelling north from England one must pass an awful lot of amazing places, with stunning scenery and brilliant trails. Once you have convinced yourself not to stop at any one of the Seven Stanes in the Borders, you continue past the awesome vistas of either Cairngorm or the breathtaking valleys of Glencoe and Lochaber. Further north even than the legendary Fort William, about level with the home of Danny Macaskill, albeit on the mainland, Torridon is pretty far up. And just to give a sense of scale, there is still even more Scotland north of Torridon, but that can wait for another trip!
Born long ago in the mists of time, the mountains and rocks here are some of the oldest on the planet. Made up of Torridonian sandstone, this sits on top of Lewisian Gneiss, and they are around 1000 to 1750 million years old respectively. Yep, that's a billion years or more. The rocks, as always give rise to the landscape, and as the ice started retreating the valleys were exposed in the shapes we see today, rising steeply from the surrounding waters. The mountains rise dramatically to 3,500ft, and with the proximity to the sea, they look even bigger and more imposing than their numbers suggest. As a riding destination, there are few places as rugged and beautiful as this.
Whatever mode of transport you choose to utilise to get yourself to this dramatic peninsula of ancient rock, it will take time. This is in part to the distanced involved, but also the infrastructure, which doesn't exist to move people around at any great speed. The roads are small, single track in many places, the train connections work, but this is not commuter territory. The nearest airport is Inverness which is less than two hours drive away, which represents the most convenient way for many to visit the area if you don't fancy a road trip. To put some miles on it, Torridon is over six hundred miles north of London and still over 200 miles from Edinburgh.
With whichever long journey over with, accommodation in the area is varied with choices of holiday homes, hotels, campsites and hostels. These are all geared up for the outdoor types who visit the area for the hiking, rock climbing or sea kayaking. Food in Scotland can have a bad reputation, and as a nation is not known for its excellent health statistics, but the West Coast has some of the finest food you can get your hands on. Seafood abounds, with any restaurant worth stopping at offering a huge array of fresh spoils from the waters that feature as a constant backdrop to the everyday lives of those living in the area. There is no bike shop; the nearest is in Inverness, but next day delivery is possible, fortunately the Internet can come to the rescue even in the remote north.
Having fallen in love with the riding in the area, I had a hard time deciding whether I really wanted to promote it to the masses. The solitude and isolation available are one of the greatest assets of the area, and if I were to return to find the area crawling with enduro-strava heroes, I would be upset. That said, somewhere this awkward to get to will always keep the numbers down, but primarily as riders from the UK can get to the Alps quicker, then they probably will stay away... So if you've decided to forgo the uplift, bike park holiday this year and trek north to Scotland, pick up a map, and pedal yourself into the wilderness. Welcome to Torridon.
Given the steepness of the mountains of Scotland, finding a way to gain height through the pedals can be difficult. The vast scale of the mountains here hides their accessibility and suitability for bikes, with so much of the trails in the area being pedal-able. On arrival, many are drawn to the lap of Beinn Dampf, being easily accessible from Torridon itself, and not the most committing of the routes on offer. Spinning up the side of Loch Damh you rapidly leave what little civilisation there is (only in terms of infrastructure, the people are lovely!) and the hills open up wide and show their true grandeur.
The long climb winds its way round the back of the mountains and into a valley that time forgot, gently rising constantly but never so technical that you can't consume the views. The proximity of sea-level gives the mountains an even grander feel and looking out across the mountains it's hard to tell the scale, am I looking at a pebble or a house-sized boulder? The trail continues but steepens up to the col, or to get down with the local lingo; bealach.
It's at these points in the mountains that you feel small, having pedalled for a good while you find yourself merely at a low point between two towering summits. The effect is one of conquering the high mountains, while simultaneously being dwarfed. What follows, however, cannot be described as diminutive in size, as the valley which unfolds ahead gives twenty minutes to half an hour of descent, making use of every metre of height gain to provide a continuously flowing trail of bouldery rocky fun.
This is interrupted in true Scottish style with a river crossing, no bridge here, which is not to be taken lightly when at full speed. This is followed by pine forest flow trail that even the best trail builders in the world could take a lesson or two from. We can thank the Victorian tourists for that one as they shaped the lower slopes with paths and the ever present Rhododendrons!
Want to crank it up a notch? The bigger and more foreboding mountains of Meall Dearg, Maol Chean Dearg and Sgorr Ruadh rise from the sea level valleys up to impressive heights in a Tolkien-esque style. Once again the perfect gradient comes into play, and straight from the road, the challenge to keep pedalling begins. Never easy, always a challenge, tempting you to push on, only legs, lungs and skill limit progress as the climb drags on and on into the distance.
Respite comes in the form of slabs of exposed Torridian Sandstone, giving brief, slick rock trails on which to rest and pedal easy on the smooth terrain. The trail travels, passing lakes, a bealach, another bealach and yet still we climb. Blinding white quartzite slices through the hillsides providing loose scree to challenge grip, and smooth, steep slabs of rock give excuses to test friction and get those classic photos. The final climb to Corrie Granda is enough to send all but the most intrepid running back to the Shire.
A wall of rock presents itself ahead, with no sign of passage. Like a trick of the eye, as you approach the path presents itself, almost only visible side-on, and finally the perfect gradient is lost. Bikes hoisted onto backs, scrambling, with any spare limbs gripping the rock the final ascent is made to the col, and respite amongst the nearly permanent snow patches. Winter can still linger in the early summer, reminding travellers that the weather is in charge here. From the heart of the mountains, the escape is apparent and the only way ahead.
The valley provides yet another huge descent, eight kilometres of trail extend ahead and very rapidly you are very far from where the day started. This is commitment time, and the consequence of crashing here is obvious, but the trail is so tempting, a balance has to be struck. Approaching the final descent down to Alt na Shellech, we enter the quintessential Torridon trail made famous by numerous videos. Rock slabs and gravel corners seem to go on forever; the ground is grippy and confidence inspiring. This is one of the finest trails you'll ever ride, but the setting just makes it phenomenal. Having already descended for what feels like an age, the trail steepens and plummets down, changing from high mountain to pine forest in the blink of an eye.
The small station at Alt na Shellach seems impossibly remote for a train to stop but reminds you that you're out of the wilderness and the main road (single track) serves as a superhighway to spin down the valley to the return leg of the journey. Again the gradient returns to a level which rapidly takes you back into the wild, past a bothy and on to the final climb, after which, Torridon village and the pub beckons. A final hike takes you to familiar terrain, which some time earlier that day was used to grind our way up into the high peaks. This trail down to Annat and Torridon is a full twenty minutes at full lick with no breaks. After a big day out it feels like a battle of body, bike and rocks, but by this time the sun is low in the sky, and refreshment is calling. Back at sea level, hydrated and fed within minutes of finishing the trail, life feels pretty good.
Looking for something less extreme? The Applecross peninsula gives a fine trail out to the wonderful pub and walled garden cafe, and the beaches deserve exploring in their own right. Follow your nose or a map to find your own private white sandy beach with views of Skye over the glistening water, a trail centre this is not. A day can be spent exploring or eating around the area and a trip over Bealach na Ba is worth a go either on the road bike or more sensibly by car! The summits are possible, but you won't find much help from a map. This is true exploration and I could tell you which ones might work, and which ones definitely don't. But I won't.
Trail and enduro bikes are ideal for the area, but a bike, which can both pedal and descend well is crucial to get the best from the area. Our team had a range of short travel 29ers to long travel enduro machines; both had benefits, but crucially tyre choice was critical, as sidewall are easily destroyed on the rocks and drainage bars. Kit wise, it's imperative to have enough food, water and clothing for a full day out into the wilds, there are rarely any resupply stops en route. Maps are definitely required; mistakes can take you a long way in the wrong direction, so plan carefully and know how to navigate.
Prepare for some serious Scottish weather at any time of year and take full, proper waterproofing, spare clothes and anything else to keep you smiling while the sleet bites at your face! Midges are a problem in summer, so spring and autumn tend to be the best months for visiting and can give long periods of settled weather if you're lucky.
Get the weather right, plan your routes well and you'll be rewarded with some of the best adventure riding in the world, all washed down with superb food, drink and Scottish hospitality.
Thanks to Wildbike for putting us up in such fine style and the team from Surrey for keeping us so entertained with 'interesting' stories. http://www.wildbike.co.uk
Need a Holiday Cottage in Scotland:
The guys at dmbins do an excellent job of organising trail repair days in the area, be good to the trails and check them out here http://www.dmbins.com
By Ewen TurnerEwen Turner is a self-confessed bike geek from Kendal in the Lake District of England. He runs a coaching and guiding business up there and has a plethora of knowledge about bikes with an analytical approach to testing. His passion for bicycles is infectious, and he’s a ripper on the trails who prefers to fit his working life around his time on the bike.