We had started off well, the snow and ice crunched under our fat tyres. It was better than that feeling you get when you sit chewing gum and popping bubble wrap. Rolling out of the Glenmore forest a winter wonderland opened up in front of us. Beyond lay the Cairngorm Inner Loop as it is known by some; a 90 km circuit that circumnavigates Cairngorm, Ben Macdui and Braeriach.
My goal was to keep up with Paul and Scott for as long as possible. I didn’t think that would be long… then 20 minutes in Paul’s chain snapped. I was thankful it hadn’t happened to me, the thought of fixing a chain in the cold was unappealing, but I could see the benefit to Paul; coping with this scenario was great preparation for what could happen in February. I left him to it, sucked in the awesomeness of the situation and took some photos. If I had thought about it more I could have gained some ground on them both.
Paul and Scott were here with serious intent, to train for the impending Rovaniemi 150 winter bike race in Finland. As much as I wanted to tag along I didn't want to turn their training mission into a Sunday soother of a ride.
We made good progress out of Glen Derry towards the Lairig an Laoigh. The paths had seen some traffic, were fairly well compacted and wind swept. We were hopeful that we would be able to ride the path up to the flanks of Bynack More but we soon relinquished such ridiculously positive thoughts.
The snow started to deepen as we approached the top of the first hill. The wind picked up and a lone figure approached us. A guy in snowshoes trudged passed, we didn't say anything, it was too windy. I started to wonder if anyone had ever been rescued out here in winter on their bikes.
We were following a gpx track, it guided us around the hillside and into a steep descent, this was our point of commitment, not only for the day but also for the weekend. Even if we didn't follow the exact route it was going to be a long way back. There are no short cuts across the highest plateaux in the uk with a fully loaded bike.
Paul took the first tumble over his bars, I took the second. Scott got by unscathed but our account was balanced later as he fell through a snow bridge into a stream. The wind picked up and the snow blasted across the tundra like hillside whilst the lazy hazy sun shivered behind broken cloud.
The snow pack was hardened by the wind but our attempts to ride the crust were broken, quite literally. The surface was an illusion we would destroy with every fourth step. The reality of the conditions couldn’t be denied and what followed was 10 hours of pushing and lugging, broken only by a brief pause at the frozen Fords of Avon. The refuge was a welcome landmark but it was less than half way along the valley; we needed to push on.
As darkness swept into the valley we hadn’t even clocked up 20 km, it was clear that the full loop via Glenfeshie was going to be unattainable. The ‘bail out’ was going to be the mountain road from Braemar over the Lecht and through Tomintoul. I wasn’t relishing the idea, even though pushing was a chore I felt on equal grounds with Paul and Scott. Back on our bikes they would have a distinct advantage, I knew it was going to be another tiring day.
We resupplied in Braemar and lucked out with the kind folk running a scout camp in the Village Hall. A cheery chat and a hot brew later we were back on the road and hunting down a bivvy spot before the 16 mile climb on Sunday.
As much as I am thankful to the guys from the village hall, I would have to take issue with their assessment that it would be downhill all the way from Tomintoul. The climb out of the Bridge of Brown was a sting in the tail which sapped what little remained of my power reserves. Scott and Paul’s superior strength and fitness showed and the small dips and rises along the final leg through Nethy Bridge were something I endured rather than attacked.
The familiar sight of the Northern Corries was a welcome beacon. I scoffed the last of my Haribos and downed what remained of my ice cold water. A big black pig snorted around for food under the snow, he was fat, like really fat with a wise, weathered, frowny face. I wondered if it would have been easier taking a pig over the Cairngorms, a bit like Hannibal with his elephants.
Considering the small percentage of riding we did on Saturday I now hesitate to call these things snow bikes, but adventure bikes they sure are.